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June 27, 2017

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Myanmar's storied film industry gears up for a sequel

YANGON--With turquoise columns propping up a pink and yellow portico, Myanmar's art deco style Thwin cinema is a rare relic from a golden age of movie-making that dazzled audiences more than half a century ago.

Myanmar's film industry, once the most vibrant and prolific in the region, shriveled under a military regime that smothered the arts and ravaged the economy during its ruthless 50-year reign.

Now as the fledgling democracy emerges from the doldrums of junta rule, the stage is set for a film industry renaissance.

But the first step is repopulating the poor country with cinemas.

In its heyday Myanmar had nearly 400 theatres spread across its hilly terrain. Today only some 50 remain, mostly in urban Yangon.

"That is not enough for 53 million people," said Tin Maung Win, a garrulous businessman trying to bring movies back to the masses with a plan to build 100 new cinemas in two years.

The Thwin is the only theatre still selling tickets on what used to be known as Yangon's "cinema row" — a major city artery that once boasted six movie houses.

The others have been knocked down to make room for more lucrative development, while one stately cinema dating back to the 1920s has been boarded up for years.

The dearth is even more pronounced in the rural and impoverished provinces, where theatres have all but vanished after they were sold off by the former military regime.

Tin Maung Win and his business partners were inspired to take up the "100 cinema project" after hearing about a 2012 film shot near the border with Thailand, where local actors were unable to see their work because there was no screen for miles.

"We got this idea that we needed to create cinemas all over Myanmar," he told AFP, sitting next to a model of the low-cost, one-screen theatres with 300 seats, where tickets will go for around a dollar each.

While they will not rival the grand movie houses built during the industry's peak, the hope is that a rapid increase in theatres will inject cash into an industry where the majority of movies now go straight to DVD.

Myanmar's motion picture industry reached its acme in the 1950s — a time when optimism was flowing after independence from Britain and before the army seized power and clung on for five decades.

Stylish stand-alone cinemas like the Thwin cropped up in towns across the country, with crowds filling their teak wood chairs to watch romances, thrillers and foreign flics.

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