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By Alejandro Lopez

It’s no secret that the entertainment industry worldwide has taken a massive hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While certain segments – such as streaming services and gaming – have adapted and are prospering during the crisis, other areas are not doing so well. Across the globe, attendance at live music events and patronage of movie theaters have been hit the hardest, with widespread event cancellations, cinema premiere delays, and even closed doors.

After Japan’s month-long lockdown in May, cinemas began to slowly open their doors again. However, they faced a few obvious obstacles and needed to quickly engineer solutions before losing any more revenue. Before re-opening, cinemas had to agree to operating at 50% capacity (or less), as well as implementing prevention measures for COVID-19 to increase consumer confidence. After having put these changes into place, they had to come up with ways to attract people back into the cinema despite the fact that the majority of all new titles had been delayed.

Implementing COVID-19 prevention measures actually turned out to be fairly straightforward and quick for Japanese cinema chains.

Firstly, all theaters and showtimes began blocking every other seat available via their ticket reservation screens. This means that anyone wanting to go to the movies for a date or family outing is not be able to sit next to their companion(s) (a seat must always remain empty between you and any other cinema attendee – whether you know them or not.

Cinema seating

Next, all customers are now required to wear their masks at all times (unless enjoying their popcorn-and-soft-drink set!). In addition, all customers must disinfect their hands and have their temperature taken before entering the screening area.

Cinema staff have also changed how they operate.

After each showtime, during the normal cleaning of the theater, staff are now required to disinfect every seat in the movie theater before the next group of customers enter. Staff working at the concession stand now operate from behind a glass wall, and are required to wear mask and plastic gloves. Customers waiting in line to buy snacks also now have to form a “social distancing queue” (marked with guidelines on the floor).

Okay, we’re ready – so where are the customers?

Due to the lockdown, many key studios (both domestic and international) were forced to halt new movie premieres due to non-existent box office sales. This proved to be a challenge for cinemas because critical film releases, such as Toho’s Doraemon and Disney’s Onward, had already been delayed from their spring premieres (with no release date in sight).

Why is the spring season so important? Spring (second half of March through the first half of May) is the largest single sales period for films in Japan. As such, it is crucial for movie theaters and studios trying to capitalize on the school and public holidays that take place during this time. Taking a huge loss during the spring season, cinema chains needed a way to fill seats until the next round of new films were ready for their premieres.

And what better way than to re-release classic Studio Ghibli films, giving everyone the opportunity to experience them on the big screen!

This year, at the end of June, many cinema chains brought back to the screen Ghibli Studio classics – such as Academy Award winning titles Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Both of which sat at #1 and #2 respectively for three weeks at the Japanese box office upon re-release; further adding to their overall box office gross (where they remain in the Top 10 Box Office movies in Japan).

During August new titles have begun to premiere and consumers are making their way back into cinema seats.

Doraemon finally made its yearly premiere at the start of August, followed by Disney’s Onward a few weeks later (making a silent premiere with little to no marketing).

Plans to continue operating at lower capacity are still in effect; while it is still unclear when cinemas will return to “normal”, it’s clear that many customers are eager to enjoy the cinema experience again.

Alejandro Lopez
Alejandro Lopez

Project Coordinator

Alejandro is a native Texan and a graduate from Texas A&M University. With 4 years’ experience in the Japanese market research industry, Alejandro brings his talents and insight to many of the top companies in the entertainment industry.

Working closely with leading game and movie studios, he analyzes the usage and attitudes within the Japanese gaming/movie market by performing visual/written concept tests, usability tests, gameplay tests, and more. In his private life, he is a heavy gamer familiar with both US and JP titles.