Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 19 News List

SARS empties cinemas

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Colorful masks are being worn by fashionable people in Taiwan and, above, in Hong Kong, to protect themselves against SARS. Facewear in psychedelic colors, bold prints and even polka dots is increasingly seen on the streets, as people try to ease the daily strain of living behind a mask.

PHOTO: REUTERS

"You go to the movie theater, and I give you a free mask to fight SARS," is the new marketing strategy of one Taiwanese film company.

The local film industry has become another business hurt by the SARS epidemic. Cinemas have become desolate places and box office receipts have dropped 50 percent in the past two weeks. As a result movie companies have to figure out new ways to release their films.

Fancy 25, a movie in three parts by three young filmmakers had been scheduled for release this weekend [tomorrow], but the aggravated epidemic has given the distributor, Ren-ren Films, (人人電影) second thoughts.

"For a local film it's already difficult to lodge a time slot for the cinemas [where Hollywood films always have the advantage in the distribution schedules]. So we decided not to postpone the release dates. Instead we will send out our staff to give out masks to people going to this movie," said Yang Chih-ming (楊智明) from Ren-ren.

But, for another local distributor, Central Motion Picture Corp (CMPC, 中央電影公司), it is too risky to release a film this month. CMPC has bought the rights to release the Oscar-winning Roman Polanski film The Pianist. And it was originally scheduled for the May 24 slot.

According to Jennifer Jao (饒紫娟), the company's marketing coordinator, CMPC has decided to postpone the release date for The Pianist until further notice. "We cannot afford to take the risk. Cinema business has dropped so fast," she said.

Taiwan's Movie Theater Association (戲院公會) held a meeting at the end of last month to discuss how to cope with the fallout the epidemic has brought for cinemas. The next day, all cinemas from the association started to measure moviegoers' temperatures before they entered the building.

If a person's temperature is over

38℃, he or she will not be allowed into the cinema and will be given a ticket refund.

The association also advises its customers to wear masks while watching movies in the cinema.

But the damage is already done at Taiwan's box office. For the weekend of April 26, the best selling films were Anger Management and Bullet Proof Monk. But the former grossed less than NT$ 3 million and the latter less than NT$2 million -- which is a decrease of between 40 to 60 percent for the average

blockbuster film.

Such a movie generally grosses around NT$100 million. This time around, X-Men2 -- the best-selling film for the weekend of May 3 -- made NT$5 million, which is only half the first week gross of the first X-Men movie. One movie theater sold just eight tickets for X-Men 2 in one day. It is an unprecedented

situation.

Even more seriously hit are Chinese-language films. Zhang Yi-mou's (張藝謀) social satire movie Happy Times (幸福時光) has had an embarrassing box office take. In nine days, Shin Shin Cinema sold just 79 tickets for the film, grossing less than NT$20,000. It was the same situation at Cinemark, which also showed Happy Times.

The slump is worrying the distributor of Matrix-Reloaded, Warner Brothers of Taiwan, which has spent millions of NT dollars promoting the film and also has the problem of pirating recordings to consider. Warner Taiwan has decided to stick to the original plan and release the film on May 15, the same time as in the US.

But, it seems safe to say, the box office returns for Matrix-Reloaded will not be as good as last time around, at NT$100 million.

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