Big cities in China are great for watching movies. It's something you might not think of doing while in China but if you find yourself in the country for a while, you might want to catch a new movie in the theater and the good news is, you can.
Many people and I include myself, enjoy going to the movies in a foreign country. It can be a cultural experience in itself. What kind of snacks do they serve? Are the seats reserved? What is the theater like? It's fun to see who goes to movies and what locals enjoy. In Shanghai, I caught Avatar in 3D with a tour group from Anhui Province whose average age was about 70. I enjoyed looking around the theater, all of us wearing our 3D glasses and the tour group having the time of their lives, perhaps the first time in a movie theater for some of them.
Below, you'll find the basics about watching movies in China in English.
How to Find out What Is Playing
Unfortunately, the websites for movies where you can buy tickets in advance and see what's on are in Mandarin only at this point. (See Gewara as an example.) You can browse the Chinese language site as the movies will have photos associated so you'll at least be able to see what's playing in your city. Gewara has a drop-down menu of cities on the far left so as long as you can recognize your city in Chinese, then you can see what's on.)
A less convenient alternative for tracking down what's playing is to find an English publication and find their movie listings. Sites like Cityweekend and SmartShanghai are good places to start. Some may have information on the movies themselves, others will have cinema listings so that you can call the theater and see what is playing. Some theaters will have English speakers others might not so you might want to enlist the help of a Chinese-speaking colleague or friend to help you.
Hotel concierges should also be able to help you with this. For this route, I'd ask the concierge in the morning to find out what's playing in theaters nearby your hotel and what the times are. This gives them plenty of time get the information for you. If you have enough advance time, they might also be able to purchase the tickets for you.
You've finally figured out what's on and are thinking of going to see it. My advice is to go sooner than later. Movies typically don't last in the theaters as long as (I'm used to them lasting) in the US. Sometimes a big hit might only be in theaters for a few weeks.
Ratings & Censorship
There are no ratings in China. All movies in the theater are meant for mass consumption of all ages. This means steamy sex scenes and "gratuitous" violence are censored out. So you might be surprised to see little kids in a movie that is rated "R" at home.
English or Chinese? Subtitled or Dubbed?
Many of the foreign films that come in are shown in their original language and subtitled in Chinese. So, if you're an English speaker and you're interested in seeing the latest German film, that one's likely only going to be in German with Chinese subtitles.
Some theaters will have showings of movies in their original language with Chinese subtitles and perhaps a showing of the movie with dubbed Chinese. Ask to make sure you're getting tickets for what you want.
Some Chinese films will be shown with English subtitles. If it's a Chinese film you're after, make sure you ask if it will be subtitled in English. Not all showings will have English subtitles.
Buying tickets is pretty simple. If you haven't had someone else help you buy tickets in advance, then just go to the theater on the day you want to see the movie and purchase your tickets at the counter. You can usually buy tickets for the day-of showing but not for future dates. Tickets are reserved seating so you won't have to worry about not getting a seat.
Start Times and Early Arrivals
Arrive at the theater on time. It is my experience that there are not many previews (unlike in US theaters) and movies generally start right on time.