Five US films will be slugging it out at the Chinese box office during the upcoming Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) holiday season, a lucrative box office period that until a few years ago was reserved for local productions.

The five foreign contenders are Sony's Casino Royale, which opened last week and is expected to play until late Feb; World War II drama Flyboys, which opens on Feb 9; Fox's Night At The Museum (Feb 14) and The Devil Wears Prada (Feb 27) along with Sony's Adam Sandler starrer Click (Feb 28).

Chinese-language films to be released during the holiday include Derek Yee's drug trafficking drama Protege, which opens Feb 13, and Twins Mission, starring pop duo Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, which opens Feb 18.

The holiday season, which starts on Feb 18 this year and usually lasts around two weeks, is generally seen as one of five major cinema-going periods that have developed in the past three years in the mainland China market. The other four are the May Day holidays, summer, the National Day holidays in October, Christmas and Western New Year.

The five seasons accounted for 42.7% of annual box office grosses in 2005, according to the China Film Producers' Association.

A few years ago, foreign films were prevented from opening during the Chinese New Year holiday season. However, in recent years the blackouts on foreign films have tended to take place in summer or at the end of the year.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2007, the Hollywood studios are lining up a slate of action, sci-fi and fantasy fare, which has proved popular with Chinese audiences. Buena Vista action thriller Dejà Vu, starring Denzel Washington, has passed Chinese censorship and is scheduled for a March 9 release slot. Another Buena Vista picture, Pirates Of The Caribbean: At Worlds End, looks hopeful for the latter half of the year.

Last year, Chinese censors banned Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest because of its cannibal scenes.

The Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg, has been approved and is being scheduled for sometime in March. Fox's fantasy pic Eragon is scheduled for April and Danny Boyle's disaster pic Sunshine is now awaiting approval from Chinese censors for an April/May opening.

Meanwhile, Sony is planning a day-and-date release for Spiderman 3 on May 19.

Most films for the summer season are still in the process of applying for approval. Potential releases include Paramount 's The Transformers, which aims to open in July, and Universal's The Bourne Ultimatum is aiming for an August slot. Also jostling for summer openings are Warner's animation Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.

Animation appears to be a fast-growing genre in the China market. The five animation films released in 2006 raked in $16.76m (RMB130m), which is around 20% higher than the sales of animations in 2005.

Apart from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, animated features including Meet The Robinsons, Ratatouille, Shrek The Third, Surf's Up and The Simpsons Movie will be vying to be selected as one of the 20 revenue-sharing films that China imports each year.