BEIJING — China now has its first national cinema chain, with the creation of Zhonghua Theaters.

The chain was set up by the China Film Distribution & Exhibition Assn., headed by China Film chief Tong Gang, and comprises 300 top cinemas in the country’s 15 leading markets.

China Film, the country’s monopoly importer, had previously forged relationships with the same theaters to release foreign blockbusters on a percentage rental basis.

Zhonghua, which is not a registered business but more an alliance, basically just gave a name to that existing contractual relationship between China Film and the theaters, although there are some additions.

The chain was formed with the primary intention of providing a guaranteed forum for domestic films.

The 300 theaters will have first run of 12 “priority” Chinese films and 10 Hollywood films each year.

Theaters participating in the chain will be required to give each “priority” Chinese film a seven-day release.

Top grossers

Only theaters in major cities with over 1 million yuan ($125,000) annual box office and theaters in medium cities with at least 500,000 yuan in revenue were allowed to join the chain.

Shanghai will have 30 cinemas and Beijing 20 in the new circuit.

The chain plans to launch in late June 1997 by screening “Opium War,” the historical epic that was made to mark the handover of Hong Kong from British rule.

Meanwhile, foreign activity in the multiplex business is heating up in China. Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest has announced plans to build two 12-screen multiplexes in Shanghai and Guangzhou, with plans to expand into 30 sites.

Multiplex mania

The Asian film power also announced recently that it would build a six-screen cinema in Shanghai with a Singapore partner.

Smile of Malaysia has already opened a theater in Chongqing, Sichuan province, while Lark Entertainment of Hong Kong is expected to soon launch its exhibition business in China with a multiplex in Beijing, followed by others in Shanghai, Chongqing and Wuhan.

Other companies that have looked at the market include Sony Entertainment, Village Roadshow, Cinemark and Hoyts.

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