Filmmakers' revival plot dampened by Covid

By Dang Khoa, Long NguyenDecember 20, 2021 | 12:24 am PT
Though cinemas have reopened in most parts of the country after a months-long lockdown, filmmakers are hesitant to release their movies, fearing losses.

Theaters are still closed in Hanoi but have opened in HCMC and other places, and no new Vietnamese film has been released as people remain wary of the pandemic and avoid enclosed public spaces.

The holiday season is close, but the only movies in town are foreign ones.

Studios plan to postpone releases until 2022 to see whether their audiences really want to return to cinemas amid the pandemic, and avoid clashing with major Hollywood movies.

"There are many factors I need to consider when choosing a film's release time like the pandemic situation, audience’s preference after the lockdown, the local and foreign films waiting to be released in theaters," film producer Minh Hang said.

Of 15 Vietnamese movies waiting to be released, only five have announced dates.

A cinema in HCMC in December 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa

A cinema in HCMC in December 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa

The movie industry began 2021 with big hopes for a revival after a disastrous 2020 when many cinemas were closed and people turned to streaming services.

But the fourth Covid wave dashed those hopes.

From January to April, a host of Vietnamese movies were rushing to the cinemas after a prolonged blanking out by Covid-19 in 2020.

In April 11 movies are slated to hit the big screen as producers were worried another Covid outbreak would disrupt their plans. But the resultant stampede crushed many at the box office, with only a few like ‘Bo Gia’(Dad, I'm Sorry) and ‘Lat Mat 48h’ (Face Off 48h) succeeding.

‘Bo Gia’ was the only silver lining. It raked in VND400 billion (US$17.4 million) to become the highest-grossing Vietnamese movie ever and had releases in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and America. It also became the first Vietnamese film to collect $1 million in the U.S.

The horror show started in late April, when a fresh Covid outbreak hit the country and caused a months-long lockdown in many localities, shutting down cinemas and film production.

Movie distributors and cinema chains like Galaxy, BHD, Lotte Cinema, and CJ CGV suffered substantial losses since they had to continue paying overheads.

Nguyen Thi Mai Hoa, general director of Galaxy cinema, said during the lockdown the company closed its all of its 18 theaters across the country.

The company suffered losses of tens of billions of dong (VND1 billion=$43,000) during every month of closure, and the four-month tally was nearly VND100 billion, she said.

In June cinema chains wrote to the government and asked to reopen.

"Movie screening for entertainment is an essential activity, especially amid the difficult circumstances at the moment," the letter sent to Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Ministry of Finance, and the State Bank of Vietnam stated.

If the situation persisted, companies would face bankruptcy, affecting the future of the film industry, the letter warned.

But the severe Covid outbreak meant they could not resume operations until November.

When HCMC lifted its stay-at-home order at the beginning of October, many film companies again made a plea to PM Chinh.

While movie distributors and cinemas saw plummeted revenue, filmmakers also find themselves in a similar boat when the lockdown and social distancing rules disrupted their production.

Actors, actresses and many crew members were jobless for months since they could not gather and film during the lockdown.

'89s Group', a film production company owned by director Vo Thanh Hoa, had to call off a VND20-billion ($862,000) project despite paying advances to the director and actors.

Directors Ly Minh Thang, Bao Nhan, Le Thien Vien, and others waited for months before resuming their movies.

Moviegoers at a cinema in HCMC in May, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Moviegoers at a cinema in HCMC in May, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

No magic wand

While cinemas in Hanoi have yet to reopen, cinemas in HCMC and many other localities have resumed operation since November, with foreign blockbusters to lure local moviegoers.

But that was not enough for the revival of domestic cinemas, as numbers of audiences in HCMC have remained low even on weekends while the city only permits movie theaters to operate at only 50 percent of their capacity.

Nguyen Hoang Hai, director of content at cinema chain CGV, confirmed this, saying collections had fallen to 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

"After reopening, the numbers of moviegoers has remained low. We are very worried because we still have to pay service, electricity and water costs every day," said Thanh Huyen, representative of Galaxy Cinemas.

Cinema chains are now banking on the highly-anticipated Hollywood superhero blockbuster like 'Eternals' and the upcoming 'Spider-Man: No Way Home', hoping it will lure more movie lovers during the holiday season.

At the moment, local filmmakers are also speeding up final touches for Vietnamese movies slated for 2022 Tet, which is less than two months from now, hoping it will rake in heavy sums this fruitful period.

But the window of opportunity remains small.

"What worries us now is consumers have changed their behaviors after staying at home for too long (in the recent lockdown) and will limit going out. This is a common concern of all industries, not only the film market," director Nhat Trung told local media about his concern for the upcoming Tet.

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