'Royale' welcome in China

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BEIJING -- Sony's bet on "Casino Royale" as the first James Bond movie to play China paid off this week when it opened to a total of 11.8 million yuan ($1.5 million) in its first two days, if you include Monday night's boxoffice from Beijing and Shanghai previews, said Li Chow, chief China rep for Sony Pictures Entertainment. Including the Monday premiere, the film's premiere ranks second only to Sony's "The Da Vinci Code," Li said Thursday.

Since Bond stars Daniel Craig and Eva Green walked the red carpet for about 1,000 fans and reporters Monday in Beijing, the 007 prequel opened on 467 prints nationwide on "discount" Tuesday, when theaters here charge half price.

"Ling Ling Qi," as 007 is known in Chinese, earned just 3.6% less on its official opening Tuesday than the 8.2 million yuan ($1.05 million) that "Code" brought in on its day-and-date release last May during China's National Day holiday week, a peak moviegoing season.

"We are extremely happy with 'Casino' because it has been three months since Bond's U.S. opening and China is practically the last country to open," Li said in an interview.

Censors approved "Casino" uncut and, in an odd twist for a country that often trims foreign films, the Chinese version even restored images of torture deleted from the U.S. and U.K. versions, director Martin Campbell said in Beijing on Monday.

"The print number keeps rising because the theaters are asking for more now that they see it's going well," Li said.

"Casino" is enjoying the widest release ever for an imported film, with lead distributor China Film Group controlling prints sent to cinema circuits in the north of the country and Huaxia Film Distribution Co. covering the south.

"Da Vinci Code" earned 105 million yuan ($13.5 million) during its 23-day run last year, Li said.

But because of the wide availability here of pirated $1 copies of "Casino," some local theater managers were skeptical about CFG's boxoffice boast.

"Although first day sales are hot, piracy makes it too early to say if the film can reach the 100 million (yuan) expected by the distributor," said a manager at downtown Beijing's 800-seat New Century Cinema.

On Monday, Campbell said he'd bought a pirated DVD in Beijing where the film's star, Craig, was offered one too but turned it down.
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