Huayi Bros. enters exhibition business

First cinema of planned circuit opened in Chongqing

BEIJING -- Huayi Brothers Media Corp., parent of China's first publicly-listed movie studio, on Thursday branched out into the exhibition business, opening an eight-screen multiplex in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing in its first foray into the bricks and mortar of the nation's booming entertainment sector.

Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Cinemas opened the 1,430-seat cinema -- complete with luxury VIP and Director's Suite theaters -- in the Bailian Nan’an Shanghai City Shopping Mall.

HBC Chongqing's first screenings, in cooperation with the state-run circuit China Film Digital, were of The Weinstein Co.'s WWII-era thriller "Shanghai," starring Gong Li and John Cusack.

"Chongqing is a great captive, city audience to start our theater business with because there are 23 million people here," said Yang Liu, HBC business development manager told The Hollywood Reporter.

China, which now has merely 5,000 modern screens for 1.3 billion people, is adding nearly two screens per day to meet growing demand from the swelling middle class, whose newfound moviegoing habit boosted 2009 boxoffice 43% to $909 million.

As the boxoffice boom is expected to continue, HBC will open its second cinema in July in Beijing, in the Xinyinglian circuit, and plans to open at least five more cinemas by the end of the year.

Huayi invested roughly 30 million yuan ($4.4 million) in the Chongqing multiplex, said Yang, noting that costs are expected to go down next year when HBC plans to open an additional six to seven cinemas across China. "There will be economies of scale that save us money as we get better at the theater business," he said.

Once HBC has opened 10 cinemas of its own, it is allowed to apply for circuit status, thereby gaining greater control of the flow of films into its theaters -- a key tool in making a theater profitable, especially in China, where the release calendar is manipulated by the China Film Group.

HBC's president is Yang Min and its director of operations is Eve Lai. Wang Zhonglei is its chairman.

Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Media Corp., run by Wang and his older brother, Wang Zhongjun, raised $161 million on the small enterprise board of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in October and reported a 23% jump in 2009 net profit to nearly 84 million yuan ($12.3 million), led by its thriving TV drama sales.

Among other titles, the company recently produced the highly-anticipated Tangshan earthquake drama "Aftershock," by director Feng Xiaogang, due out in theaters in July, and also co-produced with Walt Disney a Chinese version of "High School Musical."
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