China’s Movie Ticket Price Hikes Could Harm Exhibitors, Says Its Consumer Association

Chinese exhibitors should stop wantonly raising movie ticket prices or else prepare to face consumer backlash, a key government-affiliated consumer rights body said in a new report.

The high price of movie tickets was one of the top categories of consumer complaints over the country’s big Chinese New Year holiday, according to the China Consumers Association. More than 100,000 complaints related to “movie-going services” were filed to its online public opinion monitoring system between Feb. 11 and Feb. 19, the period from Lunar New Year’s Eve through to just after the public holiday. The most common complaints were that “movie tickets are too expensive” and that people were “unable to nab tickets.”

Over the first five days of the holiday, the average movie ticket price in China was $7.60 (RMB49.1), an increase of 10% from the same period of 2019. Prices were even higher than that in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where prices rose on average 33.6% from 2019.

The report cited testimony from Li Xu, manager of the Tiananmen branch of the Poly Cinema chain in Beijing, who said that their cinema had increased ticket prices three times over the course of the short six-day holiday.

“We started selling tickets for New Year’s Day on Jan. 29. As soon as 30% of screenings were made available, we saw that tickets were selling very quickly, so we raised prices for the first time from $7.73 (RMB50) to around $9.28 (RMB60),” he explained.

“When Chinese New Year approached, we followed other venues adjusting prices to around $10.82 to $12.37 (RMB70-80), but the speed of sales still didn’t drop. We therefore raised it a further $1.55 to $3.09 (RMB10-20),” he said. At that point, demand fell back to relatively normal levels, so his theater maintained that pricing level throughout the holiday.

The China Consumers Association warned cinemas that constantly raising ticket prices without improving the quality of their services would lead to trouble in the long-term.

“The skyrocketing prices of movie tickets appears on the surface to be merely market-driven, but closer study shows that consumer experience also plays a key role,” it said. “For cinemas to pursue their own commercial interests and raise ticket prices but then ignore the feelings of audiences during the holiday period is tantamount to ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’” by destroying their own valuable source of income.

It further cautioned: “Once the trust and understanding of consumers is lost, it is [the exhibitors’] own long-term development that will suffer.”

A second category of movie-going complaints received by the Association focused on toxic air pollutants in newly built cinemas that caused people to fall ill. The report highlighted a particular cinema in coastal Zhejiang province where what environmental and medical tests appeared to indicate as excessive carbon monoxide concentrations caused several people to “become dizzy, vomit and experience other physical discomfort.” More than 60 patrons ended up being sent to the hospital for health checks.

The Association again warned cinemas against focusing too much on short-term gains.

“If a company pursues only its economic benefits and ignores the emotional experience of its consumers, that is equivalent to ‘draining the pond to get all the fish,’” or acting short-sightedly.

Movie-going was not the type of activity subject to mass complaints over the holiday. The most complaints this year were lodged against amusement park facilities, over issues such as attractions that had malfunctioned and left people injured, for instance. Cinemas came in second, while dangerous fireworks came in third. Due to the government’s orders for people to celebrate the holiday in situ this year, the categories differed from years prior, when complaints about hotels and restaurants were more common.

Data from China’s Ministry of Commerce shows that the retail and catering industries notched sales of $127 billion (RMB821 billion) in the first six days of the lunar new year, a 28.7% increase from last year, when the holiday was hit by COVID-19, but only a 4.9% increase over 2019.

China built nearly 6,000 more screens last year despite the pandemic’s negative impact on the exhibition sector, increasing its nationwide count to 75,581, according to the latest government data.

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