SARS fear slowing China

B.O. down 50%,, Rolling Stones pull out of concert

SHANGHAI — China’s entertainment industry is finally admitting that it has been hard hit by the outbreak of the killer severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Columbia TriStar reports B.O. down 50% in some parts of the country, forcing local production companies to delay new releases indefinitely as Chinese stay away from public places .

Some 66 Chinese have died of the pneumonialike illness, which has claimed 154 lives globally. Beijing announced 15 new cases Tuesday, bringing the number on the mainland to 1,418 — over a third of the world total.

SARS, thought to have originated in Guangdong, has reportedly spread to the provinces of Fujian, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi and Sichuan. If confirmed, this would mean that it has reached all corners of the vast country.

Shanghai claims to have only one case, though rumors abound that the sick are being hidden from the media.

Complete picture

Despite earlier attempts to play down the extent of the SARS outbreak, local media now covers the news. Many shops and public areas carry posters outlining ways to decrease the risk of infection and the new president, Hu Jintao, has publicly acknowledged that he is very worried about the crisis..

All this has had a knock-on effect on the media industry. The Hollywood majors — already hit hard in Hong Kong — are noticing declining audiences across much of the mainland. “B.O. numbers for southern China are very low, down 50% or more, just like in Hong Kong,” said Li Chow, Columbia TriStar’s general manager for distribution in China.

It is currently showing “Maid in Manhattan” across the country. According to Li, auds in Beijing are similarly affected and even Shanghai has seen a drop of 15%-20%. Columbia, by chance, has no new mainland releases due over Easter weekend, a situation Li describes as fortunate.

It is a fate not shared by other distribs who are rolling with “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “The Core” and “Daredevil” over coming weeks.

And domestic distribs are also feeling the pinch. Hayley Jia, a promotion executive at Asia Union Film (one of the production companies behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), said audiences in Beijing are down dramatically and several of Asian Union’s imminent releases have been delayed. These include Zhang Yuan’s much anticipated “Green Tea,” which was to roll out in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou at the end of this month but has been put back indefinitely.

Prod’n rolls

However, while distribs and exhibs are suffering, production is carrying on. Most of Asia Union’s domestic filming has not been affected by SARS. “We have lost a day or two here and there,” said Jia, “but we’ve made up for time.” Films in production include helmer Hou Yong’s “Blooming Jasmine,” starring Zhang Ziyi, Joan Chen and Jiang Wen.

Columbia’s production wing in Asia is run by Barbara Robinson, who confirmed that filming on its co-production “Cellphone” (by “Big Shot’s Funeral” helmer Feng Xiaogang) is on schedule. She added that the risks associated with crowded areas mean that street scenes are very difficult to shoot.

At a press conference at the end of March, thesp Michelle Yeoh (“The Touch”) said that she and members of the cast and crew of her latest pic, “Silver Hawk,” filming in Beijing, were taking vitamins, wearing surgical masks and avoiding crowds to protect themselves against infection.

The Rolling Stones pulled out of the Beijing and Shanghai leg of their Licks world tour at the beginning of the month, sparking fears that this would be the first of many cancellations. However, Asian pop stars continue to visit and perform. Singapore’s Stefanie Sun and mainland singer Na Ying recently appeared at an award ceremony in the southern city of Shenzhen, both wearing facemasks.

The musical “Cats” is still playing in Shanghai and the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival has announced no plans to delay its June 5-15 schedule.

However, business and sports events, including an international ice hockey championship, scheduled for this month have been put back, and entertainment industry bosses may be forced to reconsider plans as the SARS epidemic continues.

(Steven Schwankert in Beijing contributed to this report.)

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