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When Bogota-based holding company Valorem bought mega exhib/distrib Cine Colombia late last year, a ripple of anxiety coursed through the country’s film industry.

Valorem, a unit of Grupo Santo Domingo, also owns and operates Caracol TV, which started a film division last year. Some worried that pics produced by rival web RCN would be shut out from Cine Colombia’s 193 screens, almost 40% of the country’s 500-plus.

Those concerns were allayed somewhat when Cine Colombia distributed RCN-backed “El Man” and “Riverside” early this year, with other RCN films lined up. “We’ve always been avid supporters of Colombian cinema,” assures Cine Colombia distribution head Carlos Llano. “We intend to continue releasing films from both RCN and Caracol Cine.”

In response to accusations of running a monopoly, company president Munir Falah points out the company owns just 25% of the theaters in the country, though it does enjoy a 55% share of total admissions. He partly attributes its success to prime locations equipped with state-of-the-art projection equipment.

In its bid to foster independent cinema, Cine Colombia has co-sponsored the World Cinema Fund Spotlight, a three-day showcase of Latin America pics. It also hosted the weeklong Eurocine Festival in one of its Bogota multiplexes in April.

“With Hollywood movies still dominating our screens, the ideal scenario would be for the creation of alternative/arthouse circuits and for major exhibitors to permanently allot two to three screens to independent cinema,” says Elba McAllister, prexy of Cineplex, the second-largest indie distrib in Colombia.

Rampant piracy and the introduction of 3-D screens are among the challenges that lie ahead in this underscreened territory of 45 million people. At present, Cine Colombia has installed eight digital screens, while Cinepolis and Cinemark have one and two, respectively.

In the meantime, Cine Colombia faces growing competition from Mexican giant circuit Cinepolis, which opened eight screens in the capital and plans to open 16 more by next year. Cinemark Colombia, the second-largest exhibitor in Colombia, aims to build another eight, while Cine Colombia has 37 new screens planned to open by 2010.