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Movie channel powers Celestial out of its niche

Co. offered up TV p'gramming, docus, pix at AFM

SANTA MONICA — Celestial Pictures, known for theatrical and DVD reissues of such Shaw Brothers classics as “Come Drink With Me,” is fast becoming more than a niche label for devotees of dusty celluloid gems.

At this year’s American Film Market in Santa Monica, Celestial ramped up offerings as a producer, buyer and distributor of TV programming, documentaries and films, buoyed by parent company Astro All Asia Networks’ satellite broadcasting capabilities.

Celestial docs “Burning Dreams” and “Contemporary Styles of Kung Fu” have picked up buyers in Taiwan, France, Spain and other European territories. And its documentary series “Cinema Hong Kong” has been nominated for the TV Asia Awards.

Remakes of existing Shaw Brothers titles are in the works, in addition to developing new projects.

Celestial also inked three distribution deals for homevideo rights to Shaw Brothers films. Pics will be distributed in Latin America by Beverley Hills Entertainment. Quinto Piano will handle distribution in Italy while Intersonic will oversee Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“We look for a special kind of distributor, people who have passion for our product,” says Gordon Cheung, executive VP of Celestial Pictures.

Inked production and distribution agreements with China’s Xi’an Film Studios and China Film Group take advantage of new co-production opportunities open to Hong Kong companies on the mainland.

And through subsid Pasi Animation Studios in the Philippines, Celestial made and acquired 200 episodes of animation this year.

Driving Celestial’s growth ambitions is its film channel Celestial Movies. Since its launch 18 months ago, the 24-hour venue has become the No. 1 Chinese movie channel, beating similar offerings from regional rivals Phoenix and Star.

The anticipated launch of a third satellite by sister company MEASAT will expand and improve its greater Asia coverage from the Middle East to Australia and New Zealand. By 2006 it expects to land U.S. and European broadcast rights.

Currently with three feeds throughout Asia including the recent addition of landing rights in China, Celestial Movies content draws about 30% of its programming from the Shaw Brothers catalog.

Another 50% is other Chinese-language content, including acquired and originally produced programming as well as licensed programming from Beijing Film Studio, Shanghai Film Studio and Golden Harvest’s slate of 170 film titles from the late 1990s. The rest is newly acquired content from Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

“Our interest isn’t only licensing for TV. We are also interested in acquiring all rights to films for theatrical, for DVD, as well as TV. Our experience and relationships built by our experience with Shaw Brothers films gives us the network to do this,” says William Pfeiffer, CEO of Celestial Pictures. “We’re producing and acquiring to feed our distribution lines and the movie channel.”

That means more buying and more production — especially when a fourth feed, targeting the Thai market, is launched later this year.

“We’re looking to acquire more Japanese, Korean, Thai and Malaysian titles,” Pfeiffer says. “From the U.S. and Europe we are looking primarily for action, martial arts, horror films — genre films have broad appeal for our audiences.”

Celestial’s parent, media-conglom Astro, is also a broadcaster of premium movie channels into Southeast Asia. Astro will jump from 50 channels to 100 with the launch of the MEASAT satellite next year. Currently Astro broadcasts in Chinese, Indian lingoes, Bahasa Malay and English, with 17 channels Astro-branded.

Celestial merged with Astro in August, two months before Astro’s listing on the Bursay Malaysia exchange in October, the largest IPO in Asia this year.

Vicki Rothrock in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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