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Showbiz Shell-Shocked

It’s a desert out there. From Athens to Australia, down Broadway and up Sunset, showbiz worldwide has been swept under the sands of the Middle East war.

Cinemas and stages were bleak Jan. 16 as the world scurried home to follow the bombardments on television – itself wrestling with combat restrictions and skittish advertisers.

And with major international meets in doubt or disarray and security a worry at film shoots and festivals, the main question in the industry now is: Will the war have legs?

Some lowlights:

* U.S. webs were estimated to have displaced or sacrificed $20 million worth of ads by Jan. 18.

* Fear of flying grounded American execs headed to Cannes this week for the Midem music confab; many Europeans, Japanese and Australians promptly followed suit. Also up in the air are the Berlin Film Fest, L.A.’s American Film Market, the Monte Carlo tv meet, Showest in Las Vegas and the Tehran film fest, all skedded for next month.

* On Broadway and in London’s West End, day-of-performance ticket sales plummeted last week. New York’s reduced-rate TKTS booths reported sales were down 36% through Jan. 17 over same time last year. That week in ’90 saw the sale of 14,693 tickets; last week it was down to 9,345.

* Moviehouses in France went on security alert and braced for a downturn in business. In Paris, ticket sales Jan. 16 and 17 were off 20% to 25% from the previous week.

* Orion has canceled the world premiere of its big entry “The Silence Of The Lambs” in Washington, D.C.

* Athens was on the verge of panic as fears of terrorist activity mounted, and foreigners were warned to stay out of the city. Some cinemas already had shut last week amid riots over the killing of a teacher, buildings being torched and public transport strikes.

* The Italian government drew up an emergency plan in the event of prolonged conflict that would oblige cinemas, theaters, restaurants and bars to shut down at 11 p.m.

* Lensing at Los Angeles Intl. Airport was scrubbed last Jan. 17 when the airport went to its highest level of security alert. Canceled were shoots for one feature, “Serious Money,” and two commercials; filming will not be permitted at LAX until further notice, per airport filming coordinator Richard Croul.

* At least one film suspended production in Israel. “The Prodigal Father,” a U.S./Hungarian/Israeli production starring Michael York and Liv Ullmann, shut down after diplomats advised the cast and crew to leave the country.

* Sweden’s Jan. 25 Gothenburg film fest faces almost certain disruption, with Swedish airline SAS restricting freight service and thus threatening film deliveries. And it’s unclear whether Dennis Hopper, Cynthia Scott and other invited guests will show.

* In Los Angeles, security was tight at the Jan. 19 Golden Globe Awards, with the Beverly Hilton promising the same level of security as for presidential visits and the Beverly Hills police on full alert.

* Although more than two months away, the March 25 Academy Awards are also the subject of heightened security precautions. Academy exec director Bruce Davis cited the need for extra security in the grandstand prior to the awards and “possibly for the audience itself.”

Davis stressed, “I don’t want to start any panic here, [but] I think if the war were still going on, we might do something more than just ordinary. We’re certainly looking at the ramifications of the international situation in regard to the awards.”

* In Germany, the gulf crisis caused some hasty scheduling changes by network programmers. ARD deleted “War Games,” ZDF canned a thriller about an Arab power struggle, and RTL Plus withdrew “War Birds,” a film about a revolution in a gulf sheikdom.

* Legit stages around the U.S. suffered casualties last week in the form of empty seats.

In Washington, where Neil Simon’s Broadway-bound “Lost In Yonkers” preemed with the war, b.o. impact has been tough but not lethal, per producer Emanuel Azenberg.

“We are paying a big price,” Azenberg said. “We’re in Washington, where half the audience is political. So we’re wrapping $20,000 when we we might have wrapped $40,000. People are watching the war. Theater is thought of as frivolous. It’s not the time to partake.”

On Broadway, Shubert theater operations manager Peter Entin reported poor paid attendance last week, but said it was expected, as did Nederlander manager Arthur Rubin. Jujamcyn honcho Rocco Landesman drew the bleakest picture, pointing out that on Jan. 17, “Grand Hotel” wrapped a meager $44,000 – down from $53,000 the post New Year-week before, traditionally one of the year’s softest. Similarly, “City Of Angels” wrapped $61,000, down from $78,000 the week before.

At the Huntington in Boston, where Brian Friel’s “Aristocrats” is runnning, b.o. was down 40% to 50%, according to managing director Michael Maso, who attributed falloff to the war.

Across the water, London’s West End stages were solemn as war broke out. Day-of-show biz was dismal, according to Roger Filer, m.d. of the Stoll Moss circuit. He says advance ticket sales also are “seriously down” at all 12 of his shows except “Five Guys Named Moe,” a recent transfer from the East End.

Brit b.o. dropped off during the 1982 Falklands War as well. Filer hadn’t decided whether to beef up security at his theaters, opining, “More security makes people nervous.”

“We’ve advised our managers to be vigilant,” said Stan Fishman, booking director of Britain’s Rank Odeon film circuit. Signs at the two Odeon West End theaters advise that security checks are in force.

In France, the UGC circuit told managers to be alert for suspicious objects. “We are in permanent contact with the police and we are keeping very vigilant,” said one UGC exec. In Italy, Gianluigi Della Casa, head of the biggest circuit, Cinema 5, forecast a steep fall in admissions. “People will stay home and watch the news. They won’t want to leave the house,” he said.

Nonetheless, U.S. boxoffice rebounded somewhat after an initial falloff. “I was surprised that so many people are still going out to the movies,” said Bill Thompson of Manhattan’s City Cinemas chain.

A somber air descended on Munich’s Film Week, and virtually all social functions were canceled as organizers felt this wasn’t the occasion to party. “It’s no time for tuxedos and champagne,” said Bavarian premier Max Streibl.

No German execs said they were planning to duck out of Monte Carlo, Berlin or the American Film Market. Typically stoic view, expressed by Irmgard Strehle of exporter Cine Intl.: “War has nothing to do with business. The terrorist threat could last for 20 years.”

But that sentiment was hardly unanimous around the globe. In Sydney, Hoyts Entertainment topper John Rochester said of AFM, “If prudence says don’t go, I won’t go” – echoing many other wait-and-sees. Neither AFM nor Showest execs reported any cancellations yet.

AFM officials are expected to discuss extra security precautions, and the market, which is shifting to Santa Monica this year, will take up security with the Santa Monica Police Dept. Showest’s Tim Warner said the Vegas event always has been tightly secured because of the number of top execs in attendance.

Berlin Film Festival director Moritz de Hadeln tried to downplay security fears when asked about the possible fallout on his event, slated for Feb. 16 to 25. He promised extra precautions for delegations from “hot countries like Israel….Our guests must not fear anything, except for the fears that we all share. Festivals are about dialogs between nations and people.”

Berlin market head Beki Probst reported “absolutely no cancellations” by Jan. 17. A spokesman for United Intl. Pictures, which usually airlifts stars and directors into Berlin, said, “We’re being very prudent, but it’s business as usual.”

Monte Carlo Market director Andre Asseo reported no cancellations as of Jan. 18, but said the issue would be examined at a regular meeting of his exec committee Jan. 28.

The Feb. 9 to 16 meet traditionally draws many Arabs and North Africans, as well as thousands of Yanks and Europeans. Asseo said any decision to bag it would be made solely by Prince Albert of Monaco.

Meanwhile, organizers of the Teheran film festival last week insisted the Iran gathering will go on with the show, running Feb. 1 to 11.

In 1987, many Americans, including macho-man Sylvester Stallone, canned Cannes after Libya threatened to send bombs across the Mediterranean. The fest was uneventful, and Israeli-Americans Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan showed up surrounded by bodyguards.

Advertisers began pulling spots from tv networks in Britain and in France as tour operators and British Airways decided this was the wrong time to try to entice folks abroad. Panzani withdrew pasta ads from dominant French web TF1. It wasn’t that the shell-shocked French had lost their taste for it: After a panic buying spree at supermarkets, the pizza shelves were empty, explained a TF1 spokeswoman.

Contributing to this report were Don Groves and Jack Pitman in London; Lawrence Cohn, Jeremy Gerard, Michael Fleming and Richard Huff in New York; Hy Hollinger and Will Tusher in Hollywood; Jennifer Clark in Rome; Rebecca Lieb in Berlin; Jack Kindred in Munich; Michael Williams and Bruce Alderman in Paris; B. Samantha Stenzel in Athens; and Gunnar Rehlin in Stockholm.

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