Asian multiplexes celebrate success

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When Hong Kong's Golden Harvest and Australia's Village Cinemas planted the multiplex flag on Thai soil in 1993-94, they probably couldn't have foreseen the evolutionary shock wave that would reverberate across Asia.

Acclaimed Thai director Pantham Thongsang, whose tale of stray dogs "Ma Mha 4 Khaa Khrap" reached blockbuster status in Thailand, says of multiplex development in his country: "The change in the industry back in '94-'95 was like night and day. Suddenly we had to make movies that looked good on big, clean screens, projected from the latest projection equipment. No more dingy lightbulbs or warped screens. Suddenly we had to work with THX and Dolby sound systems. It was a totally new learning experience for the Thai production industry. How could we continue to make movies that projected poorly and sounded awful in the new multiplexes?"

And so the plexing began, in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and on and on. Close to 15 years later, the march of the multiplex continues, most notably in India and China.

For example, according to information issued by CFDEA (China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association) and provided by Beijing-based Wanda Cinema Line Corp., in 2006 there were 34 cinema circuits in China with a total of 1,325 cinemas and 3,089 screens. That's 82 more cinemas and 366 more screens than in 2005.

But with expansion comes difficulties. Rapid cinema growth in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu as well as in outlying areas is facilitating strong competition, not only between circuits in the same city but nationwide, as such "battles" are fought on a grander scale.

"Multiplex expansion in China is creating challenges, such as the ability of financiers to invest properly and control construction and operation costs, especially in light of competition between the cinema circuits," says Shao Wei, deputy general manager of Wanda Cinemas "Such competition also creates difficulty in marketing, film supply and human resources."

In smaller territories, plexing continues, but at a slower pace. Says J. Edward (Ted) Shugrue of Vietnam's MegaStar Media: "Cinemas remain the cornerstone for so many film entertainment businesses, and in spite of every form of competition -- TV, home video, piracy, cable, VOD -- and the many times moviegoing was supposed to disappear, it has not. It's remarkable."

Have Asian audiences helped move multiplexing forward?

In Thailand, where the plexing boom began, the exhibition business is "quite healthy" and audiences have played a significant role, according to Brian Hall, former COO of Major Cineplex Group.

"Thais love going to the cinema," Hall declares. "We see over 25% growth in boxoffice this year, particularly thanks to the strengthening of the local Thai film industry. But viewer interest tends to consolidate on a small number of bigger titles, and even mega-blockbusters tend to stay onscreen for only a few weeks before dropping out."

In China, moviegoing habits are similar. According to Wanda Cinemas' Wei, the Chinese traditionally enjoy movies, especially white-collar workers and older teens with disposable income. Families also enjoy going to the movies, especially comedies, which is also true of Filipino, Thai and Singaporean audiences.

Raymond Lee, managing director of Manila-based UFO Prods., is seeing growth of a more sophisticated audience thanks to the new multiplexes.

"Our older studio productions have given way to new independent filmmakers who produce movies that people want to see," Lee observes. "Comedies and action-adventure bring out the crowds, who spend time in the malls, which are anchored by the new multiplexes. But true cinephiles attribute the current growth of the industry to more screens playing more movies which are available in many locations -- even in the provinces."

As for negative trends, industry executives all cite the same problems: early burn-off, discounting caused by competition and, of course, piracy.

Hall, a 20-year veteran of the business, offers this overview: "Some markets, such as Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, go through cycles where their local industry has several big hits in a given year and then hits a dry patch. Others, like China and India, which have a very strong cinematic history and where local content dominates at the boxoffice, can probably benefit from a better balancing of international films -- including Hollywood titles -- in their overall mix to produce more robust growth over the longer term."

The piracy issue has remained at the forefront of multiplex concerns across the region. Pirated copies of a blockbuster opening in Hollywood can be found on Asian streets the day before the opening with local-language subtitles in place.

Hall sees light at the end of the tunnel, however. "Piracy is a problem throughout the world -- and Asia in particular -- although there are some positive signs as to how to make gains against it. Basically, I think that if exhibitors and distributors and studios can continue to focus more time and effort cooperatively on how to solve problems where our interests are obviously aligned, we can all benefit."
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