New Zealand's largest cinema circuit, Village Skycity Cinemas,has taken over management of the country's grandest picture palace, TheEmbassy, in a first step towards giving the chain a mainstream presence in Wellington.

The Embassy had a majorrefurbishment in the lead-up to its hosting of the world premiere of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of TheKing in December 2003. It was built in 1924 and retains many originalfeatures including sweeping marble staircases.

Village Skycity CEO JoeMoodabe said the company would examine ways of improving the single-screen,758-seat venue, which is owned by Wellington Council, such as the possible additionof two small auditoriums.

The circuit will furtherentrench itself in Wellington with the opening of a nine-screen complex atQueensgate Mall in April 2006. Wellington is New Zealand's second biggest city and its largest filmmakingcentre. It is also home to the country's most famous filmmaker, Peter Jackson,who has been a driving force behind the preservation of The Embassy.

Village Skycity opens itsfirst two gold class cinemas in its flagship Auckland site in Queen Street in December. Moodabe says the 30 and 40-seat venuesare also the first true gold class venues in New Zealand. Two are also included at the Queensgate site andmore will follow.

Twenty-nine screens will beadded to the circuit's current 68 screens by the end of 2007. These include sixin Hamilton (opening October 2006), 12 in Albany (mid-2007) and probably twomore in Manukau, where a new 10-screen complex is scheduled to replace thecircuit's first venue, an eight-screen complex, by Christmas 2007.

"It is a gutsy call but weare working on the philosophy of 'build them and they will come'," saidMoodabe. "I am thrilled with the support of [owners] Skycity Leisure andVillage Roadshow. They asked me 'what do we have to do to stay number one'' Theexpansion also lessens our dependence on the Auckland market."

The next biggest circuit in New Zealand is Reading, followed by Hoyts. Village Skycity alsoowns half of the 19-screen Rialtoarthouse circuit, is a partner in a five-screener in New Plymouth, and owns 10screens in Fiji, six in Suva and four in Lautoka.

Moodabe has very highexpectations for several local films releasing soon. They include King Kong (Dec 14), River Queen (Jan 26), No. 2(Feb 16), Sione's Wedding (March 30)and Perfect Creature (undated). The World's Fastest Indian is already ahit and The Lion, The Witch And TheWardrobe, which shot in New Zealand, opens on December 8.

Village Skycity and productioncompany South Pacific Pictures are acting as the distributors of Sione's Wedding, which is a first forthe cinema chain.