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California theater chain plans to expand, teach classes in China

by Los Angeles Times

A California-based theater chain is trying to tap into the growing movie market in China –- not just by building theaters there equipped with the latest digital technology, but also teaching young people how to run them.

The privately held UltraStar Cinemas chain, headquartered in Vista, Calif., has joined forces with the Xiamen Culture and Art Center and Xiamen University of Technology to establish the XMUT UltraStar Academy of Digital Cinema Management. Classes will be held on the public technology university’s campus and begin next year.

The school is part of UltraStar’s developing three-pronged strategy in China. In addition to building theaters, the company also is preparing to build digital cinemas and to create a digital network that will screen live events in the theaters, such as the soccer World Cup or rock concerts. UltraStar plans to build 10 theaters in China in the next five years that will serve as a training ground for students at XMUT.

“The advent of digital cinema … requires individuals trained in digital cinema management and operations,” Xu Xiang Ming, vice director of the Xiamen Culture and Arts Center, said in a statement.

Students will be able to major in digital cinema management and will study such subjects as digital equipment usage, cinema marketing techniques, booking and buying of content and customer service.

The idea for the school originated when Tony Gaston, manager of UltraStar’s Asia operations, spoke at a conference in China in late 2006.

“I became aware of the fact that China had really virtually no cinemas. The ones that existed were very old and the equipment kind of patched together and nothing -– at least in the cities that I was in during that trip -– that would compare with what we think of as a modern cinema,” Gaston said in an interview.

Gaston and John Ellison, chief operating officer and co-founder of UltraStar, visited several cities in China in 2007, eventually choosing Xiamen in Fujian province as a starting base of the company’s China operations. The city, which has a population of 3.53 million, is on the southeast coast of China, about 600 miles south of Shanghai.

Gaston said he was in part influenced to select Xiamen for its geographical similarities to San Diego. The view from his San Diego office is similar to ones that overlook the water of Xiamen. Ellison said it is a “dynamic area. A tremendous amount of growth has happened there and [will continue] in the near future.”

“The reception that we received from the city was wonderful,” Gaston said.

One of the cinemas will be built in Xiamen’s Jimei District, where the university is located, an area populated by more than 580,000 people and that currently has no movie theaters.

In addition to the hands-on studies the cinemas in China will provide, students will also intern with UltraStar in Los Angeles during a study abroad program. The company, which has 13 theaters in California and Arizona, is developing the program with Demos Vardiabasis, a Pepperdine University professor of economics and international business.

Gaston emphasized that the academy will be “developed in line with the [Chinese] culture, rather than bringing in a foreign concept and forcing it upon them –- ‘this is the way to see movies.’” Instruction will be provided by both Chinese educators and UltraStar representatives.

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