SARS scare affects parts of Asia

Exhibs in some markets continued to blame the Iraq war TV coverage for depressing ticket sales last week while elsewhere bookers identified the real “enemy” as the paucity of compelling product.

Meanwhile the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS) has debilitated attendances in Hong Kong and it’s having an impact, although less severe, on Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Rarely does the weekend’s top-earner overseas register a single-digit gross but it happened April 4-6 as “Daredevil” minted an estimated $8 million from 4,500 screens in 45 markets; its cume through April 8 topped $60 million.

Although the comicbook actioner took pole position in ailing Italy, skewing young, exhibs had hoped for a stronger showing from the superhero and were disappointed that while folks may be war-weary, they’re not returning to cinemas. Ben Affleck starrer was No. 1 in New Zealand, solid in Norway but ho-hum in Japan, beaten by the seventh orbit of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

“Maid in Manhattan” was tops in South Africa but it couldn’t catch “Daredevil” in Italy, where one programmer said topliner Jennifer Lopez isn’t a B.O. draw and “Maid” should have been bigger, considering it debuted at No. 1 in most other markets. Gotham-set romancer has wooed $46.5 million in 49 territories — a personal best for J.Lo abroad (toppling “The Cell’s” $42.6 million) as well as domestically.

“The Jungle Book 2″ sequel reigned again in its soph sessions in Germany and Austria and saw a jaunty preem in Italy before expanding for the Easter holidays; it’s banked $43 million in 26 markets and will shoot past domestic’s $46.6 million over the weekend as it launches in four major territories.

“Just Married” wasn’t wonderful but good enough to take top spot in Spain considering leads Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy were unknown there. Romantic comedy provides light relief for people “who don’t want to see misfortunes, actioners, suspensers or gun-shots,” opined one Madrid programmer.

“They want to have fun and forget about the news.” The honeymoon-from-hell tale fared respectably in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium; it’s earned a decent $25.8 million in 19 countries.

“The Recruit” saw a fair turnout in Brazil and triumphed again in its second week wide in the U.K and in Belgium and Holland. Spy thriller’s estimated cume reached $22 million in 21 markets.

In Blighty, “Shanghai Knights” opened nearly 10% up on “Shanghai Noon” while Vin Diesel vehicle “A Man Apart” was mauled by the crits and widely ignored, as happened Stateside.

Heath Ledger/Orlando Bloom starrer “Ned Kelly” led the field in its soph session Down Under despite a steep drop which indicated word of mouth is mixed at best. Beginning their foreign travels in Oz, “Bringing Down the House” was passable but well below what some exhibs anticipated in light of its stellar U.S. results; “Dreamcatcher” bowed stoutly, on par with “The Cell”; and “What a Girl Wants” looked promising, primed for school vacation which has just begun in some states.

“The Core” unearthed a fine $426,000 in four days in Taiwan and while it was No. 1 in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, the SARS outbreak clearly hurt it. Sci-fier was no great shakes in Germany and plunged in its second outings in the U.K., Spain and Mexico.

“Tears of the Sun” was feisty in South Korea but humbled in Mexico by the second romp of “The Hot Chick,” playing to topliner Rob Schneider’s sizable following. “Tears” suffered from the B.O. malaise in Hong Kong and Thailand.

Gallic laffer “Chouchou” was the pacesetter in France for the third week in a row. “The Heart of Men,” a French pic about four guys who are having problems with work, dying relatives and extramarital affairs, was enthusiastically embraced by crix and auds.

“Darkness Falls” corpsed in Germany as one exhib mused, “There’s enough horror on the nightly news and little to need to go to the cinema for a fright.”

(Ed Meza in Berlin, John Hopewell in Madrid, Archie Thomas in London, Liza Klaussmann in Paris and Sheri Jennings in Rome contributed to this report.)

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