China became the unexpected focusof attention on the first day of this year's ShoWest convention in LasVegas, with news that Beijing authorities are prepared to relax film importrestrictions for its planned digital cinema circuit and the announcement byWarner Bros International Theatres of a ground-breaking nine-screen multiplexin Shanghai. To cap it all, Miramax revealed that China was one of QuentinTarantino's chosen locations for his new film, Kill Bill.

In the next two to threeyears, the People's Republic of China plans to build as many as 100digital theatres across all 30 Provinces and major cities, drawing on anationwide network of 33,000 km of fibre-optic cables and an excess transpondercapacity on its orbiting satellites. As many as twenty of these digitaltheatres will be ready as early as this June in order to satisfy the soccer-madChinese public with games from this year's World Cup that will be broadcastin high-definition from Japan and Korea.

Just as significantly, LinyueBao, China's deputy director general, National Film Bureau, StateAdministration of Radio, Film & Television, told ShoWest that hisGovernment is prepared to allow more foreign films into their digital theatresthan has been the practice with its regular, traditionally-projected theatrevenues. "The same censorship regulations will apply for digital films butthere might be an agreed higher demand in the quantity of imported digitalprogramming compared with regular films" he said via a translator.

Linyue also stated that theChinese government would also intervene in the matter of deciding who pays for buildingdigital theatres, whose systems cost considerably more than traditionalprojectors. Any distribution savings arising from not having to strike filmprints will be passed on by Beijing to the exhibitors, he said. "Centralisedmanagement is more favourable in helping to speed up the building of a digitalcinema circuit in China," declared Linyue. "This will surely be arare opportunity to reinvent the movie business."

At the same time, Warner BrosInternational Theatres is awaiting final approval now from both the Beijing Governmentand the Shanghai municipal authorities for a new 1490-seat nine-screen complexit plans to open in Shanghai. Scheduled for a gala opening on April 12, thecinema marks the first entry into the Chinese market by a major theatricalexhibitor.

Located in the Xujiahuidistrict of Shanghai on the top floor of one of the city's largestshopping malls (The Grand Gateway), the new state-of-the-art venue will beowned and operated as a joint venture of Warner Bros and two local partners,Shanghai Paradise Co. Ltd and Broadband Investments Limited of Hong Kong. ShanghaiParadise is the city's leading film distributor, accounting for 90% ofthe local market, and the dominant exhibitor as well with a Shanghai commercialcircuit of 140 screens. Broadband Investments operates 15 restaurants inShanghai.

One of the complexes'key design elements will be a large mural in which Chinese superstars JackieChan and Gong Li stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Hollywood legendsHumphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.

"We began planningthis project last year in anticipation of the dynamic changes that will occurnow that China has joined the WTO," said Barry Meyer, chairman and chiefexecutive officer of Warner Bros. "Projects such as this will fuel thegrowth of the Chinese film business and help realize the vast potential of thisas yet untapped market."

Added Millard Ochs,president of Warner Bros International Theatres: "Based on our experiencein developing the multiplex concept in other territories around the world, wehave found that venues such as this one provide the spark that triggers growthnot only in the exhibition arena, but also in the entire film industry."

As a result of China joiningthe World Trade Organisation, industry commentators predict a two-fold increasein the number of films to be imported into China this year alone, especiallyafter the recent success of Warner Bros' Harry Potter.

Shanghai, says Warner Bros,is a particularly important theatrical market in China. While it only representsabout 1% of China's population, it accounts for some 12% of the country'stotal theatrical box office.

The new Shanghai theatremeans that history has come full circle for Warner Bros. Prior to 1949, thestudio ran its Chinese distribution business in Shanghai. And in 1986, Warner Brosco-produced Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun with the Shanghai Film Studio.

Now looking to step intoSpielberg's footsteps is none other than Quentin Tarantino. After a longabsence from filmmaking, prolonged by the pregnancy of his chosen lead actressUma Thurman, the director is preparing to roll the cameras at last on KillBill. According to Rick Sands,chairman of worldwide distribution for Miramax Films, which is financing thefilm, Kill Bill will shoot inChina as well as three other locations this year: Japan, Mexico and the US.Sands hopes to premiere the film at next year's Cannes Film Festival, thescene of Tarantino's Palme d'Or winning triumph with PulpFiction.