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Smog-free cinemas: In China, movie theaters push purified air as new amenity

2-D, 3-D or even 4-D? IMAX or 70 millimeter? Regular seat or a plush, motorized recliner? Movie theaters these days offer more choices than ever, and now cinemas in China are upselling customers in the smog-choked country with yet another option: clean air.

South Korean cinema chain CGV has opened a 20-seat clean-air theater – called the Sweetbox -- at its multiplex at Beijing’s Indigo mall. CGV says it’s the first such theater in the Chinese capital equipped with air purification technology. Last month the chain opened another clean-air theater in Tianjin, a city of more than 14 million about 90 miles southeast of Beijing. CGV has about 50 cinemas in China.

Tickets for the Sweetbox run about $20 each – about four times the average ticket price in China – and are sold in pairs because seating is on 10 love seats arranged stadium-style. Tickets are available one day in advance.

CGV promises that inside the Sweetbox, the level of fine particulate matter called PM 2.5 -- super-small particles 1/30th the width of a human hair that can lodge deeply in the lungs and seriously affect health -- will be maintained below 20 micrograms per cubic meter. 

That would fall in the “moderate” range based on U.S. EPA standards but would be considered “excellent” under the Chinese government’s less-stringent scale. Outdoor concentrations of PM 2.5 in Beijing are frequently over 100, sometimes soaring to over 500 or “beyond index.”

Outside the Sweetbox is a digital display showing the level of PM 2.5 inside; on a recent day when the theater was apparently not in use, the readout showed a level of 41 – which under American standards would be considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

Indoor air quality has become a mounting concern in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. Many expats and wealthier Chinese have in recent years purchased air purifiers for home use, and some government offices and private companies have also bought clean-air technology. But few schools, restaurants and other public facilities have purifiers. On intense pollution days, an ominous haze is clearly visible in airports, subways and train stations.

In December, the Chinese arm of real-estate firm JLL and environmental consultancy Pure Living released a report on Beijing commercial space that found that air in 90% of the city’s offices is just as bad as the outdoors, based on tests of 160 buildings. “About one-quarter of all buildings surveyed showed worse air quality in indoor working areas than outdoors,” the study added. 

Stephen Shih of the consultancy Bain & Co. said that office and property developers are increasingly interested in clean-air technology and are touting their indoor air quality to prospective tenants and customers.

“We are seeing more interest and action in terms of creating clean-air environments in office spaces, whether that’s property developers that are making that a feature of office space or employers that are selling a ‘low PM 2.5 environment’ as a way to attract talent, or increases in purchase of air purifiers,” Shih said. “It’s really taken off in the last few years. It’s been explosive growth." 

Liam Bates, whose Beijing-based start-up Origins Technology makes a popular indoor air quality monitor called the Laser Egg, says businesses are actively looking for ways to clean their air and use that as a way to attract customers.

“When the pollution rises, everyone stays at home, and it’s really depressing, and shop owners say they have no customers. We thought it would be really cool if we could help businesses clean the air and then display it,” he said. 

But that’s easier said than done.

“What we’ve realized is, it’s very hard to make public spaces have clean air,” said Bates. “If you have a coffee shop and it’s on the street, the doors are opening and closing. You bump into your friend as you’re coming in and he’s going out, you stand there chatting for two minutes. All of the clean air you had is now gone and it’s exactly the same as outside. In a big space, it takes a while to get your air very clean.”

Movie theaters may be better situated to try to control air quality because they are often located deep inside malls and shopping centers, not close to outside exit doors. And once the projection starts, there’s little opening and closing of doors.

CGV is not the only cinema chain seeing business opportunity in clean-air theaters. Under an initiative called “Bringing the Finnish Air to Wanda,” Wanda Cinemas in December announced a cooperation agreement with a technology company in Finland, AAVI, to install air purification systems in some of its theaters.

The company has bought 49 sets of equipment from AAVI and has started equipping its theater in Beijing's central business district with the technology. After that, it will retrofit its theater in the eastern suburb of Tongzhou and consider expanding it to other branches.

Zeng Maojun, chief executive of Wanda Cinema Line, said Wanda has invested substantially in hardware for its theaters and wants its air to be of an equal standard.

"In recent years, the air quality in Beijing is getting worse, especially this year. There have been several [very] smoggy days," he told state-run CCTV news. "Audiences are paying attention to the air quality. So we started to think: How can we can create an environment so that the audience can enjoy air that is as good as Europe while watching a film?" 

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.  

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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