It's a smash hit! Chinese return big-time to movie theaters

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People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus chat each other as the watch a film at Poly Cinema in Beijing on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. With coronavirus well under control in China and cinemas running at half capacity, moviegoers are smashing China's box office records, setting a new high mark for ticket sales in February, with domestic productions far outpacing their Hollywood competitors. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

BEIJING – The thrills and chills of the big screen are back big-time in the world’s largest film market.

With the coronavirus well under control in China and cinemas running at half capacity, moviegoers are smashing China's box office records, with domestic productions far outpacing their Hollywood competitors.

February marked China’s all-time biggest month for movie ticket sales, which have so far totaled 11.2 billion yuan ($1.7 billion). China overtook the U.S. as the world’s biggest market for movie ticket sales last year as the American box office took a massive hit from the closure of cinemas because of the pandemic.

Chinese theaters were able to reopen by midyear and have seen steady audience growth since then. Local movies have also benefited from periodic unofficial “blackout" periods, when only domestic productions are allowed to be screened. A dearth of major Hollywood blockbusters over recent months appears to have also boosted the market for Chinese films.

“People were encouraged to stay in Beijing for the Lunar New Year, and so watching movies in the cinema became the top choice of entertainment,” said Chu Donglei, marketing manager at Poly Cinema’s Tiananmen branch in central Beijing.

Mask wearing is mandatory and moviegoers must register with a cellphone app so they can be traced in the event of an outbreak. Only every other seat is allowed to be occupied, making it even harder to obtain tickets for the most popular films.

According to the China Movie Data Information Network, 95% of ticket sales came from the seven top-grossing films timed for release around the Lunar New Year festival, which began this year on Feb. 12.

“Hi, Mom,” a time-traveling comedy written and directed by and starring Jia Ling, was the top earner with 4.36 billion yuan, followed by action comedy “Detective Chinatown 3,” with 4.13 billion yuan.