Hong Kong production outfit Applause Pictures has launched alocal distribution arm and set Clint Eastwood's multiple Oscar-winning MillionDollar Baby as its first release.

Applause, which plans to release the film on 18 screens onMarch 10, quietly acquired Hong Kong rights last year when it became clear thefilm would be Oscar nominated. The move marks the first time the company hasacquired a foreign movie or directly distributed a film in Hong Kong.

At a press conference in Hong Kong on Friday (March 4),Applause explained that the deal stems from a long-standing relationshipbetween Ruddy Morgan Organisation (RMO) - which produced Million Dollar Babywith Lakeshore Entertainment - and Applause founder and chief executive PeterHo-sun Chan.

Producers Al Ruddy and Andre Morgan introduced Chan toHollywood where he subsequently directed The Love Letter for Dreamworksin 1999. They also helped sell remake rights to Applause production The Eyeto Cruise Wagner/Paramount Pictures and its sequel The Eye 2 to New LineCinema.

"We didn't pre-sell Million Dollar Baby because wedidn't want to just throw the picture into the international market," explainedMorgan at the press conference in Hong Kong. "The film requires carefulhandling and, based on what I've seen, Applause has an interesting way ofdealing with difficult marketing problems."

Applause said the release is "the first of a series ofcollaborative undertakings between RMO and Peter Chan". RMO, which has anoffice in Shanghai, plans to co-produce Chinese-language films with Applause,starting with Chan's US$10m Perhaps Love.

According to Chan, Applause's new distribution arm willrelease 8-12 films a year including the company's own productions,English-language titles and films from other Asian territories such as Korea,Thailand and Japan.

Applause, which also produced horror omnibus Threeand its sequel Three'Extremes, plans to ramp up production to around sixor seven films a year, one or two of which will be co-produced with RMO.

Esther Koo, formally general manager of Andy Lau's FocusFilms, will head up Applause's distribution activities in Hong Kong. Thecompany also has a distribution outfit in Taiwan headed by Wolf Chen.

Applause's upcoming The Eye Infinity, directed by thePang Brothers, will be the last of its productions to be released in Hong Kongby another party. Golden Harvest will release the film on March 24.