Virgin Cinemas is to launch two new multiplexes in Japan as part of an aggressive expansion plan for the territory that will see Richard Branson's exhibition interests reach 18 sites by 2004.

The first site, a nine-screen cinema in suburban Tokyo is set for a December launch, while a 10-screener at Ebina will arrive next Spring.

Virgin, which currently operates five multiplexes with a total of 53 screens in the territory, will have to compete for increasingly cautious audiences with the likes of Warner Mycal and UCI which run 44 and 10 sites respectively, as well as with local cinema giant Toho.

Despite the summer box office successes of A.I, Pearl Harbor and most recently Spirited Away, Japan's cinema audience is in slow decline. Peaking in 1998 with 145 million admissions, last year's annual total only reached 135 million.

As Japan's economic slowdown and shrinking consumer spending make the country's multiplex business even more competitive, major operators like AMC offer a $8 (Y1,000) ticket where filmgoers usually pay the world highest ticket price of $14 (Y1,800). Special reductions are available for late screenings (after 8:30p.m.) during the week, for ladies on every Wednesday and for every first day of the month.

In mid-July Virgin invested $4.2m in a joint venture with Toronto-based leisure centre operator MagiCorp to create two location-based facilities - one in Manchester England, one in Toronto - featuring digital content delivered over cinema-sized screens and personal table-top monitors.

Dubbed Lucid, the joint venture's concept of entertainment destinations will offer a range of leisure, interactive gaming and 'eatertainment'. While the Toronto complex is not expected to launch until 2003, talks are underway for similar projects in Tokyo, according to the MagiCorp internet site