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SARS casting a pall over Cannes deals

Film market participants are down, particularly from Asia. Economy, war fallout also cited.

May 17, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

CANNES — Although overall attendance and movie sales are up at the film market that accompanies the Cannes Film Festival, there's been a decrease in the number of participants from Asia, partly because of the SARS epidemic.

Festival organizers say attendance by participants from China and Thailand has dropped 50% compared to last year; attendance by South Koreans is down 37%. There also has been a slight decrease in participants from Hong Kong.

However, an infusion of buyers and sellers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Hungary has helped boost overall attendance of the film market by 10%. Festival organizers also say sales of movies have gone up 23% from last year.

Yet the mood in the market as of Friday -- particularly among Asian buyers and sellers -- seemed dour.

"It's a little flat," said Joanne Chan, a film seller from Hong Kong's Golden Network film company. "SARS is only one of the reasons. It is also the general state of the world. With the bad economic situation and with the war, fewer companies came."

Added Hideyuki Baba, of Japan's TOEI company, "People are very concerned about traveling abroad."

While the film festival is the place for movie stars, glamour and a vast international press corps, the accompanying film market is the place for deals. It provides one-stop shopping for distributors and producers eager to sell the rights to their movies all over the world.

It also is the place to set up distribution deals for movies outside of their native territories. Buyers and sellers from around the globe generally hole up inside the Palais des Festivals off the main artery, La Croissette, to negotiate.

The no-shows cast a pall over some parts of the market .

"All my buyers from China canceled," said Jennifer Muhn, a film seller for Korea's Cinema Service, who added that companies from Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines also bowed out.

Karen Wu, from Good Film Co. in Taiwan, said that at least six Taiwanese film buyers canceled their trip at the last minute. Wu said she and her colleagues were so worried they would be banned from the festival that they voluntarily went to hospitals in Taiwan and got chest X-rays to prove they were not infected.

She said the airport in Taipei was eerily empty. There were only 30 passengers aboard the jumbo jet that flew them to France -- and everyone was wearing a mask.

"There are many people who were afraid to come," she said. "Initially it was very hard to book a ticket to come here, but then everybody started canceling."

Once in Cannes, her Taiwanese group had reserved a hotel dining room for a banquet. The hotel called to cancel the party at the last minute, saying there was no room. Wu suspects a fear of SARS led to the cancellation.

Nam In-Young, a programmer for the Women's Film Festival in Seoul, Korea, said the concerns about SARS are out of control. She says she believes Asians have been unfairly singled out as carriers of the disease even though Toronto has had an outbreak too.

"People assume that all of Asia is covered with the virus," she said. "People look at me funny and I feel like saying to them, 'I'm Korean. I'm not Chinese.' It doesn't make any sense. It's all paranoia."

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