SARS bucks Canadians

Toronto biz persists but advisory cuts visits

This article was corrected on April 28, 2003.

TORONTO — The specter of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) threatened to upstage the chatter, if not the events, at many entertainment venues in Toronto over the weekend.

“SARS is not choking this fest,” Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival director Chris Macdonald vowed. The festival kicked off its 10th anniversary Friday with Jonathan Karsh’s “My Flesh and Blood.” Event, North America’s largest docu fest, ran through Sunday.

Cancellations aside, the festival program is going full-steam ahead, Macdonald told Daily Variety. “Documentary makers are a fearless lot.”

Industryites have been holding their breath since the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory last Wednesdaysuggesting that travelers postpone nonessential visits to Toronto. Furious lobbying from city politicians and health officials last week to have the WHO advisory deep-sixed fell on deaf ears.

Feeling squeeze

So far the results have been mixed. The number of SARS cases being reported is on the decline and life for those in the city is carrying on virtually as normal, but the city’s new pariah status has dinged the tourism and hospitality industry by an estimated 30%.

A cable industry conference hosted by the Canadian Cable Television Assn. skedded for this past Sundaythrough Tuesdayin Toronto was postponed after more than 75 of the conference’s 400 preregistered delegates canceled.

“Following the World Health Organization announcement advising people not to travel to Toronto and the number of delegates heeding that advice, we are left with no choice but to postpone until a later date,” said Janet Yale, CCTA president-CEO. Organizers hope to reschedule for the fall.

Other gatherings, including Hot Docs, are carrying on undeterred. The doc event box office, traditionally anchored by local moviegoers, is actually running 50% ahead of last year, when 30,000 attended, and while delegate figures are down to 1,000 from about 1,400 last year, international guests Werner Herzog and Nick Broomfield are still slated to appear.

“Those people who have canceled are doing so, I think, with a lot of chagrin and even embarrassment,” said Macdonald. “In some cases their governments are telling them they won’t cover their visit, they may have to be put in quarantine when they come home or their employers are telling them not to come. It’s largely out of their hands.”

Macdonald said local filmmakers are stepping up to the plate to replace industry panelists who bail out.

Rolling on

Other events taking place in the city include the Sprockets Toronto Intl. Film Festival for Children, which kicked off Fridayand will run to Sunday. “We’re business as usual, for sure,” said fest director Jane Schoettle. “Our ticket sales have actually exceeded last year.” About five delegates canceled, she conceded, but the cancellations haven’t affected the program.

Comic Ellen DeGeneres performed as scheduled at Massey Hall on Sunday; Elton John and Billy Joel have cancelled their Air Canada Center performance tonight; and Nana Mouskouri and Harry Belafonte are booked for Massey Hall on May 27 and 28.

TV and film production industryites have been busy working to head off production cancellations. A letter from Dr. Clifford McDonald of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta decrying the WHO advisory is reportedly being faxed to worried producers in L.A.

“And so far they’re staying put,” said Toronto Film Studios prexy Ken Ferguson, who has not had any cancellations at his facilities. “Certainly it’s on everybody’s mind both here and in L.A., and we’ll see day by day if people change their mind. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

One telepic is rumored to have changed locations from Toronto to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a result of the scare. If a significant number of productions were to pull out of Toronto, Ferguson said the impact would be devastating to the community and would go on for six months to a year.

“It would take that long before people started saying again ‘Toronto’s OK,” he said.

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