The CineAsia distribution and exhibition conference got underway in Hong Kong on Tuesday, with a focus on multiplex development and the rollout of d-cinema systems in the mainland China market, which is currently enjoying 40% box office growth.

An average of at least one new screen is opening every day in China, due to investment from Chinese, Hong Kong and other Asian players, all keen to cash in on the box office boom.

Rance Pow, president of theatrical consultancy Artisan Gateway, gave a visual depiction of the way that multiplexes are mushrooming across the country – 90 cinemas with 386 screens have opened so far this year – and argued that there is still plenty of room for further growth.

According to Pow, China currently has 1,635 cinemas with 4,483 screens, which is estimated to grow to 2,000 cinemas with 6,000 screens by the end of 2010. In comparison, the North America market, with a fraction of China’s population, has around 5,400 cinemas with 39,000 screens.

Delegates also heard about the impressive rollout of d-cinema and 3D systems in mainland China, which is now the world’s second biggest territory in terms of digital screens.

The rollout has been driven by the Chinese government which provides subsidies and other forms of support to help cinemas upgrade. As a result, local players such as Time Antaeus – a real estate turned exhibition company – have been encouraged to join the fray. Time Antaeus has already deployed 895 DCI-compliant screens across China and aims to hit 2,000 by the end of 2010.

According to Yang Buting, chairman of China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association, China now has 1,388 2K D-cinema screens of which around 500 can play 3D. By November 2009, a total of 102 movies had been released in digital formats, grossing a combined $167m (RMB1.14bn), compared to 62 digital titles grossing $76m (RMB520m) in 2008.

The growth in traditional and d-cinema screens is having a direct impact on the mainland box office, which is on course to hit $882.4m by the end of 2009, a 40% increase on the $635.5 haul in 2008. As of the end of November, with the normally lucrative month of December yet to come, box office had already reached $755.3m.

In addition to new cinemas, growth is also due to a strong line-up of Chinese movies and the fact that the Chinese authorities are allowing big-ticket US movies, such as Transformers 2 and 2012, to run their course.

Sony’s 2012 has now grossed more than RMB400m in China (see separate story). In previous years, the authorities pulled high-grossing US movies from screens to ensure that local product would maintain a more than 50% market share. 

While the box office figures are impressive, Media Asia deputy general manager YC Chu noted the high costs of distributing a film in China. For a film released on 750 plus prints, which can expect to gross around RMB200m, costs can be as high as RMB20m excluding promotion.

In addition to its programme of seminars and technical updates, the three-day CineAsia conference (Dec 8-10) is also featuring product presentations from the US studios and screenings including Disney’s The Princess And The Frog, Paramount’s Up In The Air and Warner Bros’ Invictus. The show closes on Thursday with the final night banquet and awards ceremony (see below).

CineAsia 2009 Awards Presentations:

DLP Cinema Marketing Achievement Award – Sathyam Cinemas

Exhibitor of the Year – Irving Chee, Golden Screen Cinemas

Distributor of the Year – Sunder Kimatrai, Twentieth Century Fox International

Producer of the Year – Peter Lam, Chairman, Media Asia Group Ltd.

Asia-Pacific Copyright Educator Award – Raymond Wong, Producer

CineAsia Star of the Year – Zhou Xun