Multiplexes eat up B.O.

American blockbusters thrive at expense of local films

TAIPEI — The recent mushrooming of multiplexes in Taipei has caused the curtain to fall on smaller venues and sliced the box office pie into bigger chunks. Larger theaters now eat up the majority of the already meager and still shrinking B.O.

As Roger Lin at the Taipei Theater Assn. (which tracks ticket sales) characterizes it: “The outlook for theaters in general is poor. Bigger cinemas make the most money, but less than they used to a year or two ago.”

By the mid-’90s, Taipei accommodated some 55 theaters. Today, that number sits at 41, but the number of screens has actually gone up from 122 to 156. Of the 41 theaters, just six — all multiplexes — earn the majority of revenue from ticket sales, claiming almost 40% of total box office.

Actual figures hardly encourage such a saturation of screens. Box office gross in Taipei has fallen steadily since 1998. In Taipei, the take dropped 8% from $74.3 million in 2000 to $68.2 million in 2001. Nationwide, the plunge is even higher, with a drop of roughly 11% from 2000 to 2001.

A general economic slump — Taiwan appears to be at the tail end of its worst-ever recession — hasn’t helped matters. In addition, moviegoers opt to watch films on video, cable TV or pirated DVD, or spend their time and money on other forms of entertainment, such as the popular karaoke clubs.

On the bright side, a string of early blockbusters has bolstered this year’s box office, with some $26 million already in the coffers in the capital city.

The multiplex revolution dates back to 1998, when Warner Bros. Intl. Theaters and Village Roadshow Intl. opened their Warner Village megaplex in downtown Taipei. Featuring a well-stocked concession stand and 17 screens with a combined seating capacity of nearly 5,000, Warner Village gave new meaning to the neighborhood theater with snacks and other attractions.

In the last year alone, three more multiplexes have opened their doors with the same approach. The largest of these, American-owned Cinemark, boasts 13 screens.

One casualty of the war between the multiplex and the one- and two-screen theater is local film production, especially given longer engagements for American blockbusters. Last year, 96% of the total box office came from foreign pictures while locally produced films accounted for just 0.1%; Hong Kong pictures made up the remainder.

Jennifer Jao, head of acquisitions and development at the Taiwanese Central Motion Picture Corp., says that for local films, “The whole system of production, distribution and exhibition is sick.”

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