When Smart Cinema CEO Jack Gao read the news that China had distributed 500,000 health kits to Chinese students studying abroad in early April, he was inspired.
Previously working as an executive in conglomerates such as Dalian Wanda and Microsoft, Gao had lived in the United States for many years, noticing that only a few Chinese films get released in US theaters each year.
Hollywood studios have dominated worldwide distribution channels, making it difficult for foreign films to get into local markets, says Gao.
As an effort to help ease quarantine stress for overseas Chinese, Gao decided to distribute free e-tickets worth $100,000 to tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants and students in North America.
The tickets are from Smart Cinema, which is China's first and only mobile cinema app to provide theatrically released movies, according to Gao.
Unlike streaming sites, which have to wait for the so-called window-a period varying from weeks to months after films make their theatrical debuts-to stream new movies, Smart Cinema is licensed to release movies simultaneously with their theatrical premieres.
Somewhat like a cinema in your pocket, it runs a similar box-office system as theaters, which requires one ticket for one viewer for one time. Its revenue is included as part of China's box-office receipts.
According to Gao, the films available as part of the donation include Ne Zha, China's all-time highest-grossing blockbuster, and Better Days, which recently swept the 39th Hong Kong Film Awards, with eight wins, making it the event's biggest victor.
Two blockbusters based on true stories, The Captain and The Climbers-among the highest-grossing films during last year's lucrative National Day holiday-are in the lineup, which also highlights the animated film God of War Kwan Kung, directed by renowned cartoonist Tsai Chih-chung, the comedy Stop! Thieves and the romance hit Begin, Again.
Since the North American version of Smart Cinema was launched in November, the app has been installed on 160,000 devices, and has offered 69 major films released in China, surpassing the total number of domestic movies that were screened in US theaters between 2018 and 2019.
Smart Cinema can dodge the distribution barriers set by Hollywood giants. With a smartphone or an iPad, overseas Chinese can watch the latest movies in their mother tongue, says Gao.
He reveals Smart Cinema will also be available in South Korea in June, with 10 Chinese films among the first batch of content to be released there.
Despite previously believing the internet would become a game changer, helping to transform the century-old film industry, Gao says he didn't expect that audiences' watching habits would change so rapidly due to the spread of COVID-19.
For example, around 600 million people used their smartphones to watch movies during the Spring Festival holiday, says Gao.
He says the current challenge for emerging mobile cinema providers and streaming sites is whether or not their service can catch up with the unprecedented change to meet customer demand.
As an effort to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, China shut all of its cinemas, comprising nearly 70,000 screens, for more than 100 days starting in late January. Recently, the State Council, China's Cabinet, announced that cinemas can be reopened if they follow strict guidelines on reservations and limited visitor flow.
However, domestic media reports that most cinemas and industry investors are less optimistic as they believe that the audience will be cautious in returning to theaters due to the potential risks in big gatherings. Equally, distributors believe that most studios wouldn't schedule any big, potentially crowd-pulling films for release in the early phase of the resumption of cinema operations, as they lack confidence in the market.
Despite online services drawing more viewers, Gao says he believes cinemas will secure their status as an irreplaceable role in China's film industry, which gives creators and financers the confidence to produce quality content.
He estimates that online services, with their unlimited capacity, will simply diversify the film genres and give independent and arthouse films more opportunities to reach the audience.
On May 9, Smart Cinema's latest version, called Smart Cinema V3.0, was launched, drawing around 2.25 million viewers. Gao announced that Smart Cinema would provide technological support to all the cinemas in the world to help them release films online if required.
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