South Korea's top three cinema circuits enjoyed strong growth in 2002 on the back of a building boom and an overall 20% rise in admissions.

Taken together, CGV, Megabox Cineplex and Lotte Cinema now account for 45m admissions, a 42% share of the nation's total 107m admissions.

Market leader CGV, operated and 50% owned by local major CJ Entertainment, surged past the 20m admissions mark in 2002, up from 14m last year. Total revenues amounted to $117m, a 47% rise from 2001. CGV, which opened its first venue in 1998, currently operates 92 screens in 11 venues, and plans to add four more venues and 34 more screens in 2003.

Megabox Cineplex, a joint venture between the Orion (formerly Tongyang) Group and Loews Cineplex, also showed strong growth with 15m admissions for 2002, up from 9.9m last year. Megabox currently operates 58 screens in seven venues.

Meanwhile Lotte Cinema crossed the 10m admissions mark with 53 screens built into seven of Lotte's luxury department stores. The company, which debuted in 1999, plans to add another five venues and 39 screens in 2003.

Apart from their influence in the exhibition sector, the three companies are also showing an increased interest in distribution. The Orion Group has effectively utilized the success of Megabox to launch new distributor Showbox. The company is currently riding the success of its second release, Sex Is Zero, which has grossed $17.5m on 3.4m admissions in five weeks.

Major CJ Entertainment, meanwhile, is reportedly in negotiations to merge with rival Cinema Service, which itself was planning to construct a 100-screen cinema circuit named Primus Cinema. The merger would make it an undisputed market leader in exhibition, distribution, and production.

Not to be outdone, Lotte Cinema is also dropping hints that it may join in. "From this year, we plan a gradual entry into the film distribution and production sectors," says CEO Cho Byung-mu.