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China aiming to flex its plexes

Film Bureau appeals for foreign investment

BEIJING — China’s love-hate relationship with foreign media firms is warming up again as pols try to woo foreign capital into the country’s chronically underscreened exhibition sector.

China’s Film Bureau, a wing of the all-powerful State Administration of Radio, Film & Television, wants domestic and foreign capital to invest in building and renovating cinemas.

It could signal further expansion for Warner Bros., which became the first Western company to own a majority stake in a Chinese cinema in January 2004.

Warner Bros Intl. Cinemas is the No. 1 multiplex exhibitor in China. It manages eight cinemas with 67 screens and 14,449 seats via joint ventures with the Shenzhen Intl. Trust & Investment Co., Guangzhou Jin Yi Audio-visual Investment Co. and the Shanghai Film Group.

Six theaters are skedded to open this year, including one in Beijing.

The appeal for foreign investment is a turnaround after a year that introduced restrictions on foreign involvement in TV, the Internet and other audiovisual products.

Order 44 — legislation opening up programming and advertising joint ventures to foreign firms — was introduced in November 2004 and effectively rescinded in 2005.

Foreign companies building plexes in China are frustrated by unclear operating guidelines and ownership regulations that limit them to minority stakes.

However, Chinese authorities want better hardtops to get locals into cinemas to bolster the domestic market, Zhang Hongsen, Bureau deputy director, told the Beijing Student Film Festival.

Only 90 out of 260 pics produced last year screened in local cinemas, and most were withdrawn a day later due to lack of interest, he said.

“There were just over 30 (Chinese) movies that audiences really watched in the cinema last year,” he said, blaming the problem on a lack of cinemas and screens.

China has just 1,243 cinema complexes with 2,668 screens owned by 36 companies, according to Sarft figures.

The bureau is boosting the number of mobile cinemas in rural areas, campuses, factories and mining areas and looking at other distribution channels such as the Internet and TV.

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