The Two-Way
10:34 am
Fri May 25, 2012

What A Show! China's Movie Theaters Have Improved Dramatically

On Morning Edition, NPR's Frank Langfitt reported about a Chinese company's $2.6 billion purchase of North America's second-largest movie theater chain. Now, he tells us how the movie-going experience has changed in China in recent years:

When I first moved to Beijing in 1997, going to the movies wasn't really an option. Many of the theaters were decades-old, the acoustics lousy and ticket prices too high — so high in fact that most Chinese didn't go. To the degree I remember attending movies back then, I recall mostly sitting alone in the dark.

It was depressing.

Making matters worse, China had a strict quota and delay on Hollywood releases to protect its domestic film industry, so you couldn't actually see what you wanted to anyway. It was easier to pick up a bootleg DVD on the street, even if it had been shot on a hand-held, video camera in a theater in Kuala Lumpur. The quality of those DVDs wasn't very good — or so I was told. The audio often included people in the audience munching popcorn. Sometimes, the picture would be obscured by someone getting up to go the bathroom.

My wife, Julie, and I are avid movie-goers, so the only way we saw movies in theaters back then was when we traveled to other countries in Asia. It was so rare, it felt like an event. I remember seeing Gladiator in Seoul. Tomorrow Never Dies in Jakarta, Good Will Hunting on a lay-over in Singapore and Coyote Ugly (don't ask) in Bangkok.

We left China in 2002 and returned last year to Shanghai for my job.

How things have changed.

While I was away, Chinese cinema companies went on a state-of-the-art, building boom. What was once barely an entertainment option is now a lot of fun and really expensive. A couple of weeks ago, we took our kids, Katie, 10, and Christopher, 8, to see The Avengers 3D on the IMAX screen at the renovated Peace Theater downtown. To get to the box office, you had to walk through a Hershey's store, which the kids thought was a great idea.

The theater's concession stand was limited: mostly bottled water and sweet popcorn. But the theater itself was great: stadium seating, assigned seats, three-story screen and English with Chinese sub-titles. During the opening credits, lots of people continued to text on their phones, but once the action began the audience seemed gripped.

The ticket price was a crushing $25 a pop (vs. about $12 for a 3D IMAX movie in Washington, D.C., according to Fandango), but the theater was nearly 90 percent full for a 5:20 show on a Friday evening. The experience was as good as anything you would find in a Western, post-industrial country and probably better than some.

Fifteen years ago, a scene like this in China was absolutely unthinkable.

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