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A theater in your pocket
Updated: 2018-11-01 08:05:05
( China Daily )

Red Paper-Cut belongs to the first batch of digitally released Chinese films targeting Western viewers. Smart Cinema is available in a pre-installed app on phones produced by Huawei Technologies, which operates in about 170 countries and regions.[Photo provided to China Daily]

A new app enables film-lovers to view movies showing in cinemas without having to physically visit the theater.

The app, Smart Cinema, claims to be the first of its kind in the world. It made a splash at the ongoing 14th Chinese American Film Festival that kicked off in Los Angeles on Sunday.

Smart Cinema, which was launched on May 9, is a pilot project to develop new ways of screening movies, initiated by the country's top film regulator, the China Film Administration, in 2014.

The app was developed by industry veteran Jack Gao's startup, Beijing Times Digiwork Films Technology Co Ltd.

It's different from other streaming sites and apps in that the films can be viewed while they're still in theaters, rather than after. Movies become unavailable when the licensing permits run out, usually about a month after purchase. Tickets average 25 yuan ($3.6).

There are no time or space limitations. But it can't connect to large screens-a feature intended to prevent piracy.

Crying to Marry belongs to the first batch of digitally released Chinese films targeting Western viewers. Smart Cinema is available in a pre-installed app on phones produced by Huawei Technologies, which operates in about 170 countries and regions.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Gao says the product is inspired by his overseas career and his observation of China's booming internet industry. He was previously vice-president at Dalian Wanda and interim head of Legendary Entertainment.

"I've spent most of my time abroad over the past three years," Gao says.

"I helped Wanda build the world's largest cinema chain, with 12,000 screens in 15 countries. I was also a part of Wanda's acquisition of Legendary."

Gao discovered that overseas Chinese crave domestic films, which are rarely screened abroad.

China's box office generated nearly 56 billion yuan last year. But only 4.2 billion of that, or nearly 8 percent, came from overseas markets.

About 60 million Chinese live abroad, the State Council's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office's data show.

"The overseas market could be huge," Gao says.

"Chinese who've immigrated to, or are visiting, foreign countries have a stronger sense of nostalgia than compatriots who've remained in China."

Smart Cinema is available in a pre-installed app on phones produced by Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, the world's second-largest smartphone maker.

Over 20 films are scheduled for release on the app for users in Spain and Italy. The digital releases will expand to include more countries in Europe and North America.

The first batch of films targeting Western viewers includes Red Paper-Cut, which centers on a 9-year-old girl with a disability, and Crying to Marry, which recounts the story of a brave ethnic Tu bride, who sacrifices her life to protect Red Army soldiers.

But some industry insiders have expressed their concern that the app may lead to a fall in the number of people who actually visit cinemas.

"There's no need to worry about that," Gao says.

Jack Gao (right), CEO of Smart Cinema, shows how the app works in screening films during the 14th Chinese American Film Festival in Los Angeles on Tuesday.[Photo provided to China Daily]

"We're not a competitor of traditional cinemas. We're a supplement."

Most of the films now running on Smart Cinema are comparatively low-budget arthouse features that struggle to compete with Hollywood blockbusters or domestic tentpoles.

For instance, The Taste of Apple, a biographical drama based on the true story of agriculturist Li Baoguo, was released on only 0.7 percent of all urban cinema screens in early August. A blockbuster typically occupies 30 percent of screenings on its premiere day.

China has 58,530 screens in 10,417 cinemas on the mainland.

"But it's really a good movie that deserves more screenings," Gao says.

"The film tells a very touching story about how Li was dedicated to helping residents of Gangdi, Hebei province, overcome poverty."

He recalls the distribution team releasing the film in Gangdi village. The village has no cinema, and it takes at least three hours to reach the nearest town with a movie theater.

And despite China having the most cinema screens on Earth, many rural or mountainous areas in the country don't have theaters.

Over 900 counties have only one cinema, and more than 300 towns have none, Chinese Minority Writers' Society secretary-general Zhao Yanbiao says.

"(Smart Cinema) will be good news for people who want to watch films but live in an area without a cinema," Zhao says.

The China Promotion of Minority Culture & Art Association's film and TV committee recently signed a cooperative agreement with Smart Cinema in Beijing to promote ethnic films at home and abroad.

Also, China's top movie regulator gave screening permits to 970 films last year, but only 412 films, or 42 percent, were generally released in theaters.

China has 802 million internet users, who account for nearly 60 percent of the country's population, the China Internet Network Information Center's latest figures show. And 98.3 percent of China's netizens use smartphones to surf the web.

Gao says he believes online cinemas will become a trend. He predicts the new screening model will push China's box office total beyond 100 billion yuan in 2020.

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