After year of pain, cinemas, theaters await audiences' return with bated breath

By Long Nguyen, Kieu Anh   December 23, 2020 | 05:20 am PT
It has been a tough year for Vietnamese cinemas and theaters due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but there has been a glimmer of hope in recent months.

In December, "Tiec Trang Mau" (Blood Moon Party) grossed VND177 billion ($7.6 million) to become one of the top three highest-grossing movies in domestic cinema history.

Two months before that "Rom" topped the box office with earnings of more than VND60 billion and attracting huge audiences.

The success of the two has given studios the confidence to release their films. Besides, there are few new foreign movies, giving the Vietnamese film industry a golden window of opportunity.

There has been a rising number of films hitting screens in the last few months.

Since September "Trai Tim Quai Vat" (Monster's Heart), "Sai Gon Trong Con Mua" (Saigon In The Rain), "Chi Muoi Ba: Ba Ngay Sinh Tu" (Sister Thirteen: Three Deadly Days), and "Nguoi Can Quen Phai Nho" (What We Got To Remember) were released.

But these are merely silver linings in a dark picture of losses and delays.

A still cut from Trai Tim Quai Vat (Monsters Heart), hitting local cinemas in November. Photo courtesy of Trai Tim Quai Vat.

A scene from "Trai Tim Quai Vat" (Monster's Heart), which hit cinemas in November 2020. Photo courtesy of "Trai Tim Quai Vat."

A few months ago it had been a horror show as audiences refrained from going to public venues, and cinemas and studios suffered huge losses.

The year began gloomily for film distributors and makers as the pandemic kept people away from cinemas during Lunar New Year at the end of January, usually a money-spinner for them.

According to some cinemas, ticket sales during the holiday fell 20 percent from the previous year.

"Normally we sell 5,000 tickets a day on special occasions, but since the epidemic started, it is 2,000 maximum," Bich Lien, owner of Mega GS cinema, told local media.

CGV said it has been earning just VND30 - 40 billion a month, a 10th of its revenues in 2019.

Nguyen Hoang Hai, CGV’s head of content, said this year the movie industry earned only 35 percent of what it did in 2019.

"We hope we will have more blockbusters and the number will reach 40 percent by the end of this year."

Many filmmakers, both foreign and local, were worried about the impact of the pandemic on ticket sales, and postponed the release of their movies.

Through the year only 22 Vietnamese movies were released compared to 42 last year.

"Rom", a winner in the New Currents Award category at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea last year, was set for a release in July, but a second Covid-19 outbreak meant it was put off to the end of September.

Other movies such as "Ta Nang - Phan Dung" (Survive), "Lat Mat 5" (Face Off), and "Trang Ti" have been delayed until 2021.

Foreign blockbusters like "Wonder Woman 1984," the only superhero movie of 2020, and "Soul" will not come to cinemas any time before late December.

A cinema in Saigon used the X mark to keep distance among moviegoers. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A cinema in Saigon complies with social distancing requirements in May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

No spotlight

The stage did not fare any better as the pandemic left theaters in Hanoi and Saigon with empty seats and stages.

My Uyen, the owner of 5B Theater in Saigon, said she had suffered losses since even the most popular play could only sell 40 tickets.

"The audience is feeling insecure. They book tickets in advance but then constantly call me to cancel."

Many other theaters in Hanoi and Saigon also said that financial losses are inevitable this year since audience numbers fell by 50 percent.

Hanoi’s Thang Long Water Puppet Theater lost billions of dong every month and the Hanoi Performing Art Theater had to halve its number of performances this year.

A Saigon actress, who asked not to be identified, said she and her colleagues might have to stop acting and look for other livelihoods if the pandemic keeps raging.

But with Covid-19 being brought under control, many theaters are getting back to business.

Saigon’s Theater of Hat Boi premiered "Vuong Thuy Kieu" play (based on "The Tale Of Kieu" by Nguyen Du) and The Gioi Tre Theater and Hong Van Theater have been staging a number of famous plays to attract audiences.

In Hanoi, French novel "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo was dramatized in Vietnam for the first time in November.

Le Ngoc Theater, Hanoi Opera House, Tuoi Tre Theater, and Vietnam National Drama Theater have all come up with plays in the last few months.

However, a theater manager in Saigon, who asked to be anonymous, said" "Audiences are still wary of the pandemic, so our business is affected considerably."

Huynh Anh Tuan, owner of IDECAF Drama Troupe in HCMC, agreed, saying: "We have no choice but to cut ticket prices and suffer losses, but that is a problem for all theaters."

Filmmakers are keeping a watchful eye on cinemas and films that are being released, but are also worried since the pandemic has changed the entertainment habits of many people.

"We miss our audiences, please return to cinemas," a spokesperson for a cinema chain said.

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