IT'S the weekend, and the evening stretches invitingly ahead. Your monthly bonus is in your pocket and you have a date with the man of your dreams. You want to paint Beijing red, but where do you go? How about taking in the latest release playing at a cinema near you? Not a chance. For years the cinema was the centre of cultural life in China, which meant it was that or going to bed at eight. Now, increasingly, people have a choice, and they are voting with their feet. They are staying away from the cinema in their millions. ''The competition in the entertainment sphere is intense,'' says Mr Li Qiyin, a senior economist at the national film bureau. ''In the '60s there were only films. Now there are dance halls, sports events, karaoke; so people can choose what they want to spend their money on. Satellite TV is also spreading, so people can stay at home and be entertained, and then there is the growth in the popularity of videos.'' If you are one of China's new class of rich entrepreneurs, the dark recess of a cinema is simply not the place to be seen, or to be seen to spend. At the five-star China World Hotel, the price of an entrance ticket to the disco was raised for Chinese NewYear. Even at 200 yuan (HK$148) a ticket - what used to be considered an average monthly wage - the dance floor was full of local Chinese. At the entrance, young men argued loudly over who would buy the tickets for the entire group. In Changchun recently, an entrepreneur flaunted his wealth by buying the right to sing every song in a karaoke bar for an entire evening - much to the annoyance of the other guests. In Shanghai, a millionaire in his 60s has opened a karaoke bar and a dance hall solely for the use of his staff, as a perk. China's cinemas - stark, uninviting places, most of which have not had a face-lift since the '50s - are sad places in comparison. The Red House Cinema has an all-night showing on Saturday. It costs 10 yuan to see four or five films, and more closely resembles a refuge rather than a place of entertainment. ''Sometimes people who come to town from the provinces come to the all-night showing, after all, it's cheaper than staying in a hotel for the night,'' says Mr Han Ying, a staff-member at the Red House. ''Lovers come, too, if they have nowhere else to go or if it is cold outside.'' Figures for the first quarter of this year show that attendance is down by 20 per cent at the Red House Cinema compared to the same period last year. In the 130,000 movie venues nationwide, attendance last year was down 26.7 per cent on 1991. For Mr Li Huailong, the manager of the Red House Cinema and a former policeman, the answer is simple - if you can't beat them, join them. In the past year and a half he has opened a video parlour, two restaurants, two tile factories and a foreign trade company. ''The other businesses help support the cinema,'' he says. His profit last year from the cinema was 200,000 yuan. His profit from the fledgling new businesses was more than 700,000 yuan. Attendance at Mr Li's video parlour is far higher than in the cinema itself, a fact which highlights perhaps the biggest problem facing the cinemas - the poor quality of most of the films. A cinema manager like Mr Li has no control over what he is allowed to show. The film board produces 200 new titles every year - 150 Chinese-made, 50 or so imported - which are doled out to the cinemas. A cinema manager cannot refuse to show a film which has been sent from the film bureau even if he knows nobody will want to see it. ''We would do much better if the system of distribution was freed up,'' he says. In a video parlour, however, there is no direct control over what is shown - only guidance in the form of laws against pornography and similarly outlawed contents. For its part, the film bureau is angry about the challenge of the video parlours to their monopoly on the movie-viewing public. ''We want to be able to compete on a level playing field,'' says Mr Li Qiyin, ''their capital expenditure is lower, the ticket prices are nearly as high, and they pay less tax. We want the video parlours to be restricted. Some of what they show is not good for people.'' But it is difficult to see how the film board can compete when it has no plans to revise its quota of releasing just 200 films a year. At least three or four of those films have to be propaganda films, and work units are increasingly disinclined to spend their funds on block tickets for workers. So even revolutionary epics, previously assured of a good turnout, may be playing to almost empty houses. ''It's not a matter of quantity, it's a matter of quality,'' says Mr Li. But an increasingly prosperous audience wants more than the film board can provide. However good the quality, 200 films a year viewed in dank uncomfortable cinemas are not going to satisfy the increasingly sophisticated appetite of city dwellers who prefer neon and a good dance beat.