H.K. to heal film biz

Gov't helps deal with impact of SARS

HONG KONG — The government has launched a high-profile campaign to support Hong Kong’s film industry, which is still reeling from the impact of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), including relief measures and a new film fund.

On Tuesday politicians and 50 industryites attended a forum to discuss how to allay people’s fears of the killer pneumonialike virus that has sent March box office receipts tumbling 47% to $5.6 million compared with last year, according to the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Assn.

“We want to know what we can do to help the industry,” said Henry Tang, Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology.

Some recommended that government rates — essentially a property tax — and licensing fees could be waived, to give the cash-starved industry some breathing space.

Others suggested the government could provide loans to offset costs while business was down, or secure television airtime for public information messages that would persuade audiences to return to theaters.

“The key issue is: How do we make people think that cinemas are a safe place?” said panelist Ma Fung-kwok, a former founder of Media Asia turned full-time politician. “We don’t want the industry putting away all their good movies while there’s SARS. Let’s show people it’s business as usual.”

Cinema operators are already cleaning theaters more frequently, ensuring proper ventilation and providing free face masks to auds frightened of catching SARS in public places.

$6.4 mil fund

Tang also announced the $6.4 million Film Guarantee Fund, which will provide a loan guarantee to banks that lend money for film productions. It will start accepting applications at the end of this month.

“The purpose of the scheme is to build up a local film financing infrastructure to support the long term and healthy development of the film industry,” he said. Applicants must meet certain criteria to be eligible.

As of Monday some 3,861 cases of SARS have been reported in 26 countries, with 1,402 of them in Hong Kong.

SARS has affected different parts of the industry, pushing back film release dates and postponing business travel.

Fortune Star, the film arm of Rupert Murdoch’s Star Group, has joined Media Asia and pulled out of next month’s Cannes Film Festival to avoid spreading the virus.

“It’s the least we can do, to help contain the panic around SARS,” said Peter Poon, general manager of the company. “Fortune Star will be conducting business as usual by email, fax and telephone with all our business partners and clients concerning our feature film library and all our new productions.”

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