The organisers of the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) have confirmed that the event has been postponed until further notice due to the outbreak of a deadly virus in Hong Kong.

More than 450 industry professionals from 20 countries had registered to attend the projects and co-production market which was due to take place next week (April 7-9).

However, following a large number of cancellations, organisers felt they had no choice but to postpone the event. Their decision was endorsed this afternoon by the Hong Kong government which funds the event through the Film Development Fund.

"I would like to apologise to everyone for any inconvenience caused," said HAF director Albert Lee. "We tried very hard to keep the event going and had hoped that the situation would be under control by now. But it is not to be."

The killer virus, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), has killed 63 people worldwide and infected nearly 1,800. Hong Kong has been particularly hard hit with 16 deaths and 685 cases. Several governments are advising against travel to the territory.

HAF organisers are now considering new dates for the event. According to Lee, one option is to combine it with the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FilMart) which is organised by another government body - the Trade Development Council - at the end of June. "However, we need to formally approach the TDC and work things out," said Lee. "We're being very open-minded."

Lee added that he hoped all 24 projects selected for this year's HAF would participate in the rescheduled event. "But of course we respect the wishes of filmmakers if they wish to withdraw their projects for whatever reason."

Meanwhile three other events scheduled to take place in Hong Kong this month as part of the "Film Capital in April" initiative have also been affected by the outbreak. The Hong Kong Asia Screenings, which were to run concurrently with HAF, although organised under a different banner, have also been postponed. As of Tuesday afternoon (April 1), the Hong Kong Film Awards (April 6) and the Hong Kong International Film Festival (April 8-23) were planning to go ahead, but in a modified form.

"We're moving ahead because the festival is not so dependent on international participation or interaction between filmmakers," said HKIFF director Peter Tsi. "About one third of overseas guests have cancelled. But as long as the venues are still operating we will most probably continue to deliver the festival as a screening event."

Among the cancellations are French actress Sophie Marceau, who was to be a guest of honour at the festival, and US director Todd Haynes, whose latest film, Far From Heaven, is scheduled to get a gala screening.

Tsi said he hoped the festival's three new competition sections would go ahead as planned, although a gala dinner to accompany the awards ceremony has been cancelled.

The outbreak has also had a negative impact on box office with the territory's three leading exhibition chains all reporting a severe decline in takings over the past week. According to UA Cinemas general manager Bob Vallone, the circuit's box office has plummeted by an average 55% in the last seven days. "It started last Tuesday and by Sunday the box office was down by 70%," Vallone said. "It's a very depressing situation."

Meanwhile, Broadway Cinemas, owned by Edko Films, was forced to close its Kowloon Bay theatre yesterday because the shopping centre where it is located has also been closed. The majority of SARS cases in Hong Kong have been in the Kowloon area.

All three chains have stepped up their hygiene regime and are handing out surgical masks to customers upon request. "We have masks at all our box offices," said a spokesperson for Golden Harvest Cinemas. "We're also having our ventilation systems regularly checked."