SARS cuts into Chinese B.O. biz

Toronto recovers as WHO lifts travel advisory

The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic is turning into a catastrophe for the film business in China as its B.O. impact lessens in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Toronto is heaving a giant sigh of relief as the World Health Organization lifted its travel advisory Tuesday.

The Chinese government has extended indefinitely last weekend’s order to shutter theaters and other entertainment venues in Beijing. It also decreed that anyone who goes to a different city must stay there for at least 12 days, to discourage travel.

Single-screen theaters in Shanghai have been closed and ticket sales at cinemas still open there are off by 50%, according to Bob Vallone, general manager of Hong Kong’s UA Cinemas, whose sibling Studio City Cinemas has sites in Shanghai, Chongqing and Wuhan.

Hong Kong upturn

Vallone estimates there’s been a 50% hit to potential B.O. in Shanghai for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which had the misfortune of launching nationwide Saturday. “Basically what happened in Hong Kong is now occurring in China. People are very afraid and are staying home and away from crowded places,” he said.

But the exhib is heartened by an upturn at Hong Kong cinemas. “We are now grossing at levels about 65% of normal — a big improvement over previous weeks — so the SARS effect is wearing off,” Vallone said.

He hopes “X2,” which opens today, will spark business, maybe as much as 75%-80% of normal. “We are really praying that the film can gross HK$20 million ($2.5 million). ‘Johnny English’ is on its way to $1.2 million-$1.3 million, so ‘X2’ should be able to beat that unless we have a new outbreak of virus,” he added.

The health scare in Hong Kong hit attendance at upmarket situations much more than other areas. “The more affluent the clientele is, the more the business suffers,” Vallone said. “The Mongkok cinemas are still doing OK (lots of teens and young couples), but in the fashionable areas the cinemas are performing much worse.”

Overcoming fears

Travel advisories remain in effect in Hong Kong and Beijing, Guangdong and Shangxi provinces in China. Toronto, however, is celebrating the lifting of the WHO warning.

“Thank God,” said Toronto Film Studios prexy Ken Ferguson. “I hope it has the desired effect.”

Ferguson said the industry’s job now is to overcome residual fears. “We had Gene Hackman on our lot yesterday. He was one who had been expressing some concerns, and he was here. I think people take comfort in that.”

“I’m sure it’s going to make a big difference,” said Toronto film/television commissioner Rhonda Silverstone. “I think people were cautious about coming here, but then the travel advisory really discouraged them.”

So far the damage appears to have been relatively modest. Production on the Columbia TriStar TV skein “Street Time” was postponed for two weeks due to the advisory, but Silverstone has not heard of any productions officially moving locales.

A number of live concerts were canceled, including Billy Joel and Elton John, as was an industry cable conference.

But the news comes too late for the Hot Docs Intl. Documentary Festival, which kicked off Friday and runs through Sunday. While the box office, traditionally supported by local moviegoers, has been unaffected, many delegates from outside the area canceled, and the festival is being forced to hold its popular pitch fest, the Toronto Documentary Forum, live on the Internet and via conference call for those who stayed home.

Open for business

Now it’s time for damage control. Gail Thomson and Michel Frappier of the Ontario Media Development Corp. are in Los Angeles, said Silverstone, “getting the word out that we’re open for business and Toronto is a safe and healthy business destination.”

The lifting of the ban, announced in Geneva, followed a presentation by a delegation of Canadian health officials pointing out that it has been close to three weeks since the last community transmission of the disease and the magnitude of cases in the area has decreased.

Fewer than 100 people are being treated as suspected or probable SARS cases in the Toronto area. Twenty-one people have died of the pneumonia-like illness, and the rest of the 266 that are believed to have had SARS have been treated and released.

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