Wanda cinema opens 100th screen in China

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BEIJING -- Driven by year-end movie premieres here, a raft of new theaters will light up in China before New Year's Eve, including the 100th screen launched by the nation's fastest expanding multiplex developer, Wanda Cinema Line Co., company executives said Wednesday at CineAsia.

Wanda's new nine-screen flagship complex in Beijing's central business district will roll out the red carpet to its first paying guests Dec. 14, with the premiere of Zhang Yimou's much-anticipated period drama "Curse of the Golden Flower," deputy general manager Shao Wei said.

"We chose Thursday to open our 100th screen with director Zhang's 'Curse of the Golden Flower' to get great boxoffice right from the start," Shao said at the theater's opening for guests at the Asia-Pacific region's largest film industry trade show.

"Curse," starring Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat, is China's entry this year in the foreign-language Academy Award race.

Yin Gang, the principal of Shanghai-based specialty architecture firm CineChina, said that, of the more than 50 cinemas opening in China this month, five will come courtesy of Wanda -- in Shanghai, Ningbo, Chongqing and two in Chengdu.

Jinyi, China's other major domestic cinema developer, will open theaters this month in Beijing, Tianjin and Jiaxing, said Yin, a former employee of Warner Bros. International Cinemas.

WBIC in November pulled investment from China's exhibition business after a pioneering four years, citing rules barring its majority ownership of theaters (HR 12/9).

"Warner Bros. did wonderful things to revitalize China's film industry. They set the industry standard," said Yin, adding that he hopes WBIC might some day return and buy back some of the cinemas it helped Wanda develop.

Despite WBIC's exit, China's multiplex-building boom continues, thanks to pent up demand for the big-screen experience in a country where most movies are watched on TV and pirated DVDs.

"Build them, and they will come," Yin said of the multiplex, citing just one of a series of examples of sharp boxoffice growth he's witnessed -- the jump in annual returns in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province to 30 million yuan ($3.8 million) since Wanda opened an 18-screen multiplex there in December 2004. This was up from an annual average four to five million yuan, Yin said.

Yin said Wanda has an edge because it charges an average 25 yuan ($3.20) for tickets, slightly less than the competition. "Nobody in the provinces has anything to do. Open a cineplex and the boxoffice will double if the price is right," Yin said.

Ira Stiegler, another former WBIC employee, who recently formed his own firm in Shanghai, helped design the Wanda flagship. It was a challenge to meet the company's standards, set high because the multiplex sits beneath the new headquarters of the cinema company's corporate parent, a Dalian-based real estate developer of the same name. Wanda is set to move to Beijing next year.

The theater's CineAsia opening was not without hiccups. South Korean feature "Lump of Sugar" started before most guests had arrived by bus from the trade show. It started at 7 p.m. sharp to make sure that the print, whose import application was only for one screening, would be returned within the four hours Chinese customs allowed it out of their bonded warehouse, CineAsia organizer Allen Xing said.

Remnants of the WBIC influence on the industry here were in evidence all over the Wanda theater. At the top of the escalators leading to the cinema's foyer and concession hall, guests see murals depicting stars from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to Bruce Lee, a marquee advertising "Gone With the Wind" and "Conquering Ding Jun Mountain" (1905), China's first film.

Lightboxes displayed posters for Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" next to posters for "Curse." Halls leading to the plush theaters are adorned with images of the Great Wall snaking along the hills that border Beijing. On one hill, in big, white block letters, is a familiar looking sign. Rather than "HOLLYWOOD" it reads "WANDA."
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