SARS spooks pic sellers bound for Cannes

HK distribs may be left out of French fest

HONG KONG — Growing concern over the SARS outbreak could play a part in a reduced Hong Kong presence at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

With the number of local Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) cases jumping by 30 or 40 every day, film company reps are worried that by the time Cannes rolls around (May 14-25), France, festival organizers, hoteliers, or clients may place restrictions on people flying in from Hong Kong. As of April 14, the city had reported 1,190 of the 3,169 cases worldwide.

Despite canceled work trips to and from Hong Kong since reports of the pneumonia-like disease started escalating in March — and a World Health Organization advisory against non-essential travel — distributors and their clients continue to do business. “This hasn’t affected sales,” says Jeffrey Chan, head of distribution and sales for Media Asia Distribution, a regular Cannes attendee until this year. “We can do everything through email and the telephone. But we’re not spending $100,000 for the trip to Cannes when we don’t even know if people will talk to us. This is not the right time to make such a commitment.”

A Filmko Films rep doubts the company will be able to announce its four-picture slate at the festival, which it skipped last year. “If the number (of local SARS cases) reaches 2,000 by the end of the month, other countries will be too afraid of anyone coming from Hong Kong,” says Dominic Yip, company’s VP distribution. “If that happens, we may have to go to Mifed in November instead. We hope things will have calmed down by then.”

Companies such as Fortune Star — which had planned to announce its slate at Cannes — Fortissimo Film Sales and Golden Harvest also are watching how the situation unfolds. Fear of being banned is growing, as one local newspaper reported that hotels in Udine, Italy, are rejecting bookings from Hong Kong guests for the Far East Film Festival (April 24-May 1). The Swiss government also recently banned Hong Kong watch and jewellery exhibitors from attending a prestigious trade fair.

Not everyone is expressing hesitation over attending Cannes. A Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC) rep says the delegation still plans to go. The Hong Kong Pavillion will host Mandarin Films, Mei Ah Film Production Co., Universe Film Distribution, China Star Entertainment Group and Digital Content Development Corp. “We are monitoring the situation,” says Johnson Yip, manager of services promotion for the TDC. “At the moment, we’ve been told by the French consulate that there are no restrictions on Hong Kong companies and we’ve had no restriction information coming from the organizer of Cannes.”

If restrictions do come into effect, Yip says the TDC’s Paris-based staff will help represent film companies and their products, which still will be shipped ahead.

The TDC is taking a survey to see when its own Hong Kong Intl. Film & TV Market, known as Filmart, will take place. Currently scheduled for June 25-27, there is a chance the event will be postponed until later this year or next, or that it may take place in the form of an online exhibition — as happened for the local watch and jewellery exhibitors banned from Switzerland.

Other film companies are taking stringent precautions to ensure staff remain healthy, rested and in good form to attend Cannes. Management at Han Entertainment and Mythical Films have reduced work hours and are shuttling staff around in taxis so they avoid crowded subways. They also are providing vitamins and unlimited face masks to staff and production crew on “Silver Hawk” (previously “Masked Crusader”), currently shooting in Beijing and Shanghai.

The four-member Han/Mythical team also is planning on government-certified health checks before they board the plane for Cannes. “The Cannes market is very important for us,” says Sabrina Chen, general manager of distribution for Han. “We are taking every precaution. But if any of our members get sick, we’ll call off the whole trip. We don’t want to put anyone in danger.”

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