Beijing fears SARS epidemic at the movies

H'wood worries that theater ban may be spreading

SHANGHAI — As cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) continue to escalate in Mainland China, some Hollywood execs fear Saturday’s edict to shutter theaters in Beijing will spread to other parts of the country.

“The order to close the Beijing cinemas was not expected and came, of course, from very high up,” one U.S. rep told Daily Variety. “Now other provinces and cities will follow suit.”

Meanwhile, the cancellation of next month’s Beijing TV Week and the possible cancellation of June’s Shanghai TV Festival, which runs concurrently with the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival (SIFF), throws a wrench into the annual business of buying foreign content and selling Chinese content to foreign buyers.

‘Huge’ impact

“In terms of the normal course of business, the impact is huge,” said Kristin Kender, director of CMMI, a Beijing-based broadcast consultancy. “Nobody knows what is coming up. At what point can you say, ‘Things are back to normal?’ ”

The order to close theaters came too late for the China Film Group (CFG), which controls film imports and distribution of foreign films, to pull Saturday’s release of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

As of Monday afternoon New Line had not been advised of “Rings” opening figures.

Several distribs confirmed they have been given unofficial word that there will be no new foreign releases in May and June. These include “Daredevil” (slated for mid-May) and “The Core.”

‘Towers’ only film left

Indeed, the Film Bureau (which clears imports for release) and CFG are on a SARS-forced extended break until May 6, which means that “The Two Towers” will continue to be the only Hollywood film braving the ban.

Beijing has about 10% of China’s 1,023 theaters, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

“Everything on our slate has been slowed or postponed,” commented Peter Loehr, producer of “Quitting” and the award-winning “Shower,” and head of Ming Prods.

“We believe that this is going to go away over the coming one or two months,” said Loehr, speaking from Los Angeles. “But there is no way that any film shooting before the situation is resolved is going to get a completion bond or production insurance.

“As a producer, you don’t want to put anyone on a plane — crew or talent — until you know they are safe. We are keeping an eye on the situation and will make final decisions on the slate as of mid-May.”

SIFF officials last week were still hopeful that the June 7-15 event would go ahead. But it is now expected to be postponed or canceled. This is a huge blow to SIFF, which had been hoping to attract more prestigious films and talents this year.

Official confirmation should come within the week.

(Don Groves in Sydney contributed to this report.)

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