SARS scare takes toll on mainland

'Core,' 'Daredevil' may be postponed

Hong Kong is still in the grip of the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus — but the health scare did not deter folks from flocking to the territory’s cinemas during the Easter break.

But the killer disease continues to throttle ticket sales in mainland China, although, curiously, attendance has not been affected in some regions.

The Beijing government’s admission that SARS has claimed more casualties than previously acknowledged came too late for the China Film Group to consider postponing the April 26 launch of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” But CFG is debating whether to hold back upcoming releases including “Daredevil” (slated for mid-May) and “The Core.”

Rowan Atkinson starrer “Johnny English” was the top grosser in the April 17-21 frame in Hong Kong, racking up $731,000 on 31 screens. The four-day tally of $602,000 was Universal’s 11th biggest weekend and 7% up on Atkinson’s “Bean.”

“We were very pleased with the business on ‘Johnny English,’ which indicates people are willing to go to the cinema in spite of the SARS threat,” UA Cinemas general manager Bob Vallone tells Variety.

Vallone also is pleasantly surprised by Chow Yun-Fat actioner “Bulletproof Monk,” which fetched $229,000 in four days on 35, considering the title has been widely pirated on video since December. “Anyone who wanted to see it has done so, as it’s now an old product to the Hong Kong public,” he says.

While takings at UA’s circuit over Easter were 15% higher than Vallone had projected, he laments they were 43% below the same period last year when “The Scorpion King” was a huge draw.

The big test of the H.K. market’s viability will come April 30 with the debut of the “X-Men” sequel.

In China, the SARS epidemic clearly hurt “Catch Me if You Can,” which fell sharply in its second weekend, grossing a modest $805,000 through April 20. Almost certainly it’s curbed the potential of “Maid in Manhattan” which had earned $548,000 through its third weekend.

New Line Intl. president Camela Galano says of “Two Towers’ ” prospects in China: “We think we will be affected by SARS, but we had no choice as it was too late to change (the date). We will keep our fingers crossed.”

Mainland exhib Studio City Cinema, a sister company to UA Cinemas, hasn’t been impacted by the health scare thus far. It operates theaters in Chongqing, Wuhan and Shanghai. “They are all holding up just fine,” Vallone says. But he worries that last week’s announcements of the firings of the Beijing mayor and the head of the Health Dept., newspaper headlines about 109 new SARS cases in Beijing and the cancellation of the May Day celebrations might take a toll on cinemagoing.

The U.S. majors have informally discussed with China Film the pros and cons of shifting release dates. One Hollywood rep notes release slots for U.S. films are so coveted under the annual quota he frets that if any dates are changed “we can’t be sure if we will get them back.”

Another U.S. exec says: “SARS has had quite an impact on business. We have heard that dates are being rescheduled but have not been given a revised plan as yet.”

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