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Modern Movie Houses Are Sprouting Overseas

New multiplexes give Hollywood a weapon in fighting rampant foreign film piracy.

April 27, 2005|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Millard Ochs, president of Warner Bros. International Cinemas, recalls once having to walk past fish and vegetable vendors to get to a Beijing movie theater.

Inside, there was no stadium seating, no plush seats, just some large couches. Through a haze of cigarette smoke trapped by the low ceilings, Ochs tried to watch a Mandarin-language kung fu film. It reminded him of college.

"It felt like being in somebody's basement trying to watch a movie," he said. "I couldn't breathe."

Now, Ochs and Warner Bros. hope to transform China's moviegoing experience with state-of-the-art multiplexes, Dolby sound, digital projectors and VIP seats. Bags of dried fish, a Chinese favorite, will still be a staple at the concession counter. But so will Pepsi, hot dogs and tubs of popcorn.

"This is the beginning of a new age," Ochs said.

A multiplex building boom is underway in countries that until recently were virgin territories for the cinema business. Economic growth, relaxed foreign ownership laws and shifting social norms are luring entrepreneurs and capital. Modern movie houses are sprouting not only in China but also in Eastern Europe, Russia, Vietnam, Latin America and Iran, replacing what few antiquated theaters may exist there.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Overseas cinemas -- The caption on this photo in Wednesday's Business section with an article about a building boom in overseas multiplexes said it showed a UME Cineplex in Beijing. In fact, it shows a Warner Bros. International Cinemas theater in Nanning, China. Also, the photo should have been credited to Warner Bros.

For Hollywood, the new cinemas offer fresh box-office opportunities. Foreign box-office receipts, which already exceed what Hollywood pulls in domestically, grew 47% last year, in part because of the weak dollar. In the U.S. and Canada, receipts were up less than 1%.

New movie houses also give Hollywood a weapon in fighting rampant foreign film piracy. By offering movie fans trendy nightlife spots and fancy alternatives to low-quality, bootleg DVDs sold by street vendors, studio executives hope to at least slow the problem.

"You have to create a 'want to see-be seen' location," Ochs said. "That is something the pirates cannot offer."

Warner, a unit of Burbank-based Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., opened its first cinema in China in 2002. Relaxed regulations that allow foreign companies to own majority stakes in urban theaters are enticing more investment dollars. As modern multiplexes spring up in cities, makeshift screens in rural areas are closing.

Entrepreneurs elsewhere are pumping money into building and modernizing theaters in areas as diverse as Brazil and Mongolia. In Ukraine alone, the number of cinemas grew nearly 10-fold from 2000 to last year, statistics compiled by media research firm Screen Digest show.

"There is a rebirth of the experience," said Stephen Moore, head of international distribution and exhibition for Los Angeles-based 20th Century Fox. "They are now building the very best state-of-the-art theaters in the world. And the audience has responded tremendously to that."

In the Kurdish areas of Iran, theaters have been neglected for years. Director Bahman Ghobadi hopes to change that by refurbishing some. He says creating new theaters would be symbolic and therapeutic for an area that has suffered for so long.

"The Kurdish people have lived with so much grief and destruction due to war and displacement that the whole notion of getting excited for the weekend ... is alien to us," Ghobadi said. "When you see what other people have access to, you want to have the same advances in your own community."

Exhibitors still have hurdles. People who are used to paying dirt-cheap prices to watch pirated DVDs may balk at doling out more to watch movies in a theater. Cinemas also must get enough films to keep their audiences interested.

"We are going to have to invent the moviegoing public," said J. Edward Shugrue, chief executive of Envoy Media Partners, a New York-based partnership created to build theaters in Vietnam. "We are going to have to offer a level of sizzle and glamour and excitement that really doesn't exist."

Shugrue and his partners are proposing to build 10 multiplexes in such cities as Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang. But to bring in the crowds, they must turn their theaters into one-stop entertainment centers. Most of the theaters in Vietnam are single-screen relics, some of which date to French colonial days.

"In Vietnam, for entertainment on a Saturday night, people just get on motorbikes to ride around and get fresh air," said Donald L. DeVivo, a partner in the Vietnam venture. "We will offer an air-conditioned space where you can see and be seen."

Likewise, Russian theaters are ushering in an upscale feel. Shari Redstone, president of the Dedham, Mass.-based National Amusements Inc. movie theater chain, said the company's theater in Moscow was "probably the most cutting-edge we have anywhere in the world. When you are abroad you have more ability to experiment.... We are really trying to create destination entertainment."

In Moscow, the company's Kinostar features a stage above the concessions stand where live bands perform, two lounges -- one for families and another for adults -- a pastry and cappuccino shop, a billiards area and a game room.

Alexander Timofeev, chief executive of Russian theater chain Kinoplex, is planning to build a large, one-floor entertainment complex with a children's play area, a traditional Russian pancake house, bars and restaurants. In the Ural city of Ekaterinburg, Timofeev is building a nine-screen theater.

Timofeev is using as a model Thai theater developer Suwat Thongrompo, who was honored last month at the annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas for exhibitors.

As he sat in a hotel cafe during the convention, Thongrompo described his complexes to Timofeev as giant entertainment centers rather than just theaters. Features include a karaoke bar, restaurants and bowling alley. For $5 more, or a total of about $12.80, people can watch a movie while sitting in a leather reclining chair inside a VIP lounge, where they can order dinner served by a waitress.

Mainly, what Thongrompo promises his customers is a concept called Sanook -- or pleasure and entertainment.

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