That outdoor feeling

Updated: 2012-12-14 09:38

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

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 That outdoor feeling

Drive-in theaters are capturing the Chinese psyche with a sudden surge in audience numbers and new drive-ins after a quiet period following their first appearance in Beijing in 1998. Provided to China Daily

Chinese Audiences no longer need envy Americans watching movies from the comfort of their cars

Immortalized in film, the drive-in movie theater is as American as Mickey Mouse and Superman.

But if several businessmen have their way, this very American form of entertainment will become as Chinese as a kung fu flick.

The first drive-in in China, Beijing Maple Drive-in Theater, opened in 1998, and was the idea of Wang Qishun, who lived in the US for two years.

"I love cars and movies," he says. "I think the combination of both is fantastic. So when I came back to China I decided to bring this cultural phenomenon back with me." Over the following decade about 10 drive-in theaters opened in big cities across China, but they failed to catch on and some folded, says Yang Shuting, an analyst with EntGroup Consulting Group, an entertainment industry consultancy in Beijing.

However, this year the drive-in appears to have captured the Chinese psyche with a sudden surge in audience numbers and new drive-ins; at least 15 theaters have opened since January, and more are planned, Yang says.

Among them is Tongxing Drive-in Cinema in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, which opened on Nov 28 and is said to have cost about 720,000 yuan ($115,547; 89,240 euros) to set up. It has one outdoor screen and can take up to 60 cars.

Tongxing's founder, Qin Tian, decided to open the theater after visiting another drive-in and being impressed by the experience. He later found that most of his friends did not know there were drive-in cinemas in China, but were interested in trying one out.

"Almost all my friends think it is romantic and fashionable to watch movies outdoors in their own cars," he says. "You don't need to worry about bothering anyone else when you eat, talk or even smoke in your own car. When the movie ends, all the drivers hit their horns together. It's amazing."

Yang says the sudden success of drive-ins is being helped along by their novelty factor, government support for cultural industries, China's growing movie industry and a developing car culture.

"The government has emphasized the development of the cultural industry and will make great efforts to help promote it, which makes many want to invest in cultural businesses," she says. "The rapid growth in both the car and movie industries makes the drive-in theater business a reasonable and promising field."

The Ministry of Public Security says there were 110 million cars in China by the end of June, 75.62 percent of them privately owned.

In the movie industry, the domestic box-office for the first 10 months of this year was 12.95 billion yuan, representing year-on-year growth of about 26 percent, EntGroup says. Box-office for the whole year is forecast to be 18 billion yuan.

Yang says it costs about 500,000 yuan for equipment to open a drive-in cinema with one outdoor screen, which she considers a relatively small investment.

However, Wang with the Beijing Maple Drive-in Theater, says there is far more for opening a drive-in than finding a vacant space and setting up a screen.

After 14 years' development, Wang's cinema is now the biggest drive-in in China, and is widely considered a success story among industry insiders and audiences alike. It has an area of about 6,600 square meters for about 500 cars, and has six screens showing the latest movies from home and abroad.

When Wang started the business in 1998 his friends and family were highly skeptical because few people went to the cinema regularly and even fewer considered going to a drive-in theater.

"Many friends advised me to invest in a more profitable business, such as a pub or a golf course," he says.

About the time of his launch the Chinese government listed the automobile as a pillar industry, and the movie industry was opened to private enterprise. Both factors gave his business a boost, Wang says.

"I thought as the car industry boomed other industries associated with it would boom too. I had confidence in my business."

In 2003 his business received an unexpected boost from the SARS outbreak.

"People were afraid of going to public entertainment venues, but they were happy to come to a drive-in and remain in the safety of their cars."

That was a turning point for Wang's business. Over the past five years it has enjoyed box office revenue growth of 20 to 30 percent a year, reaching 15 million yuan last year.

"This is not a high-profit business; it doesn't bring money in quickly or in large amounts. If you don't really love it, it's impossible to exist," he says. It will take him about another five years to recoup his investment, he says.

Over the years he has made significant changes to the drive-in six times, including improving the projection quality and the parking area. In 2007 the company set up a technology research team, which in 2010 put 3D technology into an outdoor screen for the first time to show the movie Avatar.

"We have made a lot of changes to get good quality sound and brightness and to create a setting in which people can enjoy a better experience, because if you don't put in a full effort, watching movies outdoors can be really bad."

Wang says his target customers own cars priced at about 100,000 yuan. It costs 100 yuan a car to enter the theater, and additional revenue comes from letting out space for events such as concerts and parties and selling food and beverages.

He has been working on a business model that can expand the drive-in cinema nationwide, he says, adding that about 200 potential investors have been approached. His aim is to open 30 directly owned drive-in cinema and 70 by franchise in five years. He believes drive-in still has at least 50 years of life.

"It will some time to finally work out the business model, in which I think the ticket income will only account for one sixth or one seventh of the whole income of the cinema."

But some customers' comments raise questions over Wang's optimism, and it is clear there is still a lot of room for improvement.

"It's a nice place for couples and families, but the visual effects cannot compare with those of indoor cinemas," says Zheng Yuting, 25, a teacher who has been to a drive-in several times.

"And if you sit in the back seat of the car you can hardly see anything."

Yang with EntGroup says most Chinese audiences are used to the comfortable seating and professional visual effects and sound effects of an indoor cinema, so a drive-in cinema remains a novelty.

Once that wears off, they make their way back to traditional cinemas.

She believes that drive-in cinema will continue to be a minority form of entertainment. Cinemas with more creative ideas will survive longer, while others will probably close, she says.

(China Daily 12/14/2012 page20)