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August 17, 2019

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Curtain up for on-demand, private movies

For movie-lovers looking for a fresh way to indulge their passion, there is a new entertainment option, private, on-demand cinema.

Scattered across Shanghai’s malls and street corners, on-demand cinemas tailor the traditional movie theater experience — a dark room, big screen, and comfy chairs — to an audience of roughly two to six friends or family members per screening.

On a recent, rainy Saturday, an employee of Jiguang Cinema in Tianzifang opened the door to one of their 10 private screening rooms.

A burgundy, leather sofa was positioned opposite the wall-to-wall projector screen, alongside a nightstand equipped with tissues and disposable slippers.

“When people watch movies here, they make the space their own,” said the employee, named Guang Guang. “They can sit on the sofa or lie down; they can talk, order from the menu, or even bring food from outside.

“Our main customers are young couples who want privacy or families who find it easier to bring their children here than a traditional theater.”

As Guang demonstrates how to scan the room’s QR code and pull up the menu of roughly 3,000 available films, a line of customers starts to form in the lobby.

“I always recommend making a reservation in advance,” Guang noted. “Otherwise, you could wait three or four hours for a room.”

Founded by two Fudan University graduates in 2012, Jiguang Cinemas is one of the larger private cinema chains, with 12 branches across Shanghai.

Many patrons come regularly for the personalized theater experience, as well as the broad collection of films, which includes new releases as well as older, independent and foreign films.

“This is my third time in a private cinema,” said Jeremy He, a Jiguang customer. “My friends and I like to watch superhero movies, from Thailand, America, Japan, all over the world. But at the traditional theaters, there are too many noisy kids.”

Still, the personalized experience doesn’t come without cost.

While the average price for a traditional movie theater ticket hovers around 40 yuan (US$5.66) Jiguang’s price for a two-person screening starts at 100 yuan (US$14.16) per hour and increases over the weekend.

“It’s very expensive,” said He. “If there was one thing I would change, it would be the cost.”

Guang, however, defends the high price.

“Visiting a private cinema is like buying an Apple iPhone,” he said. “When customers recognize the high-quality service they receive, they aren’t so sensitive to the price.”

Across town in Hongkou District, 1885 Private Cinema operates a different kind of theater in Duolun Lifestyle Plaza.

“We’re a cinema but we also have rooms for KTV and playing mahjong,” said an employee surnamed Zhou. “Or you can order drinks from the lobby bar.”

In contrast to Jiguang Cinemas, where the rooms are largely identical in design, each of 1885’s screening rooms has a different theme, such as Superman, the Avengers or the beach. Some rooms even come with their own bathroom or shower. Prices vary by room, weekday and group size.

As an individual theater up against bigger chains like Jiguang, however, 1885 is still finding its footing in this consumer market.

“On the weekends, we have a regular flow of customers, but on weekdays it’s much quieter,” said Zhou.

Raising awareness and boosting public perception of on-demand cinemas still poses challenges for the industry.

“I like coming here and watching horror films but I’m not familiar with many on-demand cinemas in Shanghai,” said a customer of Dream Space Cinema’s Bailian Binjiang branch in Yangpu District.

Zhang Pengfei, a manager for Dream Space Cinemas, which currently operates 15 theaters in Shanghai, agreed many people still don’t know about on-demand cinemas.

“And of those who do, some think on-demand cinemas are dirty so they don’t want to go inside,” he added.

Part of this concern may stem from copyright and piracy issues, long prevalent in China’s film industry.

While there are around 400 private cinemas in Shanghai, Zhang estimates that 80 percent of them are operating illegally and screening copyrighted films.

In response to these piracy concerns, the National Film Bureau has recently passed several regulations on private cinemas to standardize copyright procedures as well as billing systems and screening equipment.

In May of this year, the bureau announced a pilot program to integrate these requirements into the private cinemas of seven provinces, including Shanghai.

“The pilot program is making sure the cinemas follow regulations,” said Zhang. “But here at Dream Space, we make sure we’re in compliance so it hasn’t affected our day-to-day operations.”

In spite of copyright concerns and other issues, on-demand cinemas have attracted a loyal, growing customer base.

“I come 10 times every month,” said Shi Wei, a registered member of Dream Space Cinemas.

“When I come in the evenings, the viewing atmosphere is very quiet and it helps me relax.”


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