A California theater chain is trying to tap into the growing movie market in China — not just by building theaters equipped with the latest digital technology, but also by teaching young people how to run them.
The privately held UltraStar Cinemas chain, headquartered in Vista, Calif., has joined forces with the Xiamen Culture and Art Center and Xiamen University of Technology to establish the XMUT UltraStar Academy of Digital Cinema Management. Classes will be held on the public technology university's campus and begin next year.
The school is part of UltraStar's developing three-pronged strategy in China. In addition to building theaters, the company is preparing to build digital cinemas and create a digital network that will screen live events in the theaters, such as the soccer World Cup or rock concerts. UltraStar's small Chinese chain of movie theaters — plans call for building 10 theaters in the next five years — will serve as a training ground for students at XMUT.
"The advent of digital cinema … requires individuals trained in digital cinema management and operations," Xu Xiang Ming, vice director of the Xiamen Culture and Arts Center, said in a statement.
Students will be able to major in digital cinema management and will study digital equipment use, cinema marketing techniques, booking and buying of content, and customer service.
The idea for the school originated when Tony Gaston, manager of UltraStar's Asia operations, spoke at a conference in China in late 2006.
"I became aware of the fact that China had really virtually no cinemas. The ones that existed were very old and the equipment kind of patched together and nothing — at least in the cities that I was in during that trip — that would compare with what we think of as a modern cinema," Gaston said in an interview.
Gaston and John Ellison, chief operating officer and co-founder of UltraStar, visited several cities in China in 2007, eventually choosing Xiamen in Fujian province as a starting base of the company's China operations. The city, which has a population of 3.53 million, is on the southeast coast, about 600 miles south of Shanghai.
Gaston said he chose Xiamen in part for its geographical similarities to San Diego. The view from his San Diego office is similar to ones that overlook the water of Xiamen. Ellison said it is a "dynamic area." He added: "A tremendous amount of growth has happened there and [will continue] in the near future."
One of the cinemas will be built in Xiamen's Jimei District, where the university is — an area with more than 580,000 people but no movie theaters.
In addition to the hands-on studies the cinemas in China will provide, students will intern with UltraStar in Los Angeles during a study abroad program. The company, which has 13 theaters in California and Arizona, is developing the program with Demos Vardiabasis, a Pepperdine University professor of economics and international business.
Gaston emphasized that the academy will be "developed in line with the [Chinese] culture, rather than bringing in a foreign concept and forcing it upon them." Instruction will be provided by Chinese educators and UltraStar representatives.