New light in old Beijing opera house

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MACAU -- A traditional opera house standing gutted in downtown Beijing will be rebuilt as a dual-use movie theater before the 2008 Olympics, executives said Wednesday at CineAsia.

It will be one of the first of six Lumiere Cinemas planned across the country by startup developer CMG China.

Working with Hong Kong-listed property developer China Yintai Holdings on the site on Beijing's popular Wangfujing shopping street, privately held CMG aims to serve China's fast-growing moviegoing public and, at the same time, help preserve an art whose audience is dwindling.

"The movie theater is much more meaningful if we preserve the opera at the same time, making both economically sound," CMG COO Zhang Mingming said.

Much like San Francisco's traditional Japanese kabuki theater, which CMG advisory chairman Charles Wesoky converted into a dual-use movie theater in 1980 for Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment, the Jixiang Lumiere Cinema in Beijing will house state-of-the-art cinema equipment next to an elaborate traditional wooden stage.

Built in 1906, the Jixiang Opera was destroyed in 1993 by city developers making room for retail space despite protests by hundreds of artists, CMG chairman and CEO Jimmy Wu said.

Even before CMG's chief architect, Ira Stiegler, finishes his feasibility studies, the old Jixiang stage will gain recognition as a set in "Mei Lanfang," the upcoming biopic of China's most famous opera star by director Chen Kaige.

Building the luxury six-screen theater will cost 18 million-30 million yuan ($2.4 million-$4 million). The theater will target the growing number of urban Chinese whose tastes for entertainment, service and comfort have grown with the booming economy.

"We'll price our theaters to the market, but we won't hold back on cost," Wesoky said. Based in New York, Wesoky said he spends as much as six weeks in China each quarter.

Even before the Jixiang gets under way in Beijing, CMG hopes to break ground on a 10-screen Lumiere Cinema in the new Hong Pai Lou commercial development in southwestern China boomtown Chengdu.

In 2006, China had 34 cinema circuits with 1,325 cinemas and 3,089 screens -- up 82 cinemas and 366 screens from 2005 -- data from the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Assn. shows. With the increase in screens, China's gross ticket sales in 2006 rose to 2.62 billion yuan ($336 million), Film Bureau data showed, almost a third higher than the 2005 gross of $256 million.

CMG plans to start work on four other Lumiere Cinemas by 2009 and is now negotiating financing for sites in Shenyang in northeast China and in Nanjing, near Shanghai, Zhang and Wesoky said.

In its 14th year, CineAsia is the region's largest movie exhibitor and distributor conference, which attracted more than 500 registrants this week to the former Portuguese colony and gambling mecca. CineAsia wraps Thursday.
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