On the verge of bankruptcyfrom a debt estimated around $10.9m, Astoria Cinemas - Sweden's second-largest theatre circuit - was saved in the11th hour by arch rival, market leader SF Bio, which will take over the cinemasoutside the key cities of Stockholm,Goteborg and Malmo.

However, in the future SFBio - a part of the Bonnier Group, with Swedish major, Svensk Filmindustri -will only operate the screens in Uppsala, Lund andBorlange. The theatres in Gavle, Helsingborg, Karlstad,Linkoping, Luela, Umea, Vasterasand Orebro will eventually be closed.

"One-and-a-half years ago Ithought the market could support two national cinema circuits. I have to acceptthat I was partly wrong," Astoria Cinemas CEO Mattias Nohrborg said in astatement on Friday. "I am very pleased with the SF Bio agreement, and I feelrather relieved."

"The deal helps us out of anacute, very difficult financial situation," added Nohrborg, also head ofTriangelfilm, one of the owners. Last week Astoria Cinemas went intoreceivership, applying for an administration order, after the Swedish FilmInstitute had asked the bailiff to cash in a $9.8m debt from the company.

Before the purchase of theregional branches of the circuit, SF Bio was Sweden's largest exhibitor, with theatres and multiplexesin the country's 20 largest cities, with 194 screens and 27,731 seats, takingabout 8m admissions annually. Astoria Cinemas had 23 theatres at 16 venues.

"Their decision to dismantlethe regional screens and focus on the major cities, adds a sturdy structure tothe local cinema market, with good conditions for further development," addedSF Bio's managing director Jan Bernhardsson.