Now that the SARS outbreak appears to be under control, Hong Kong exhibitors are hoping that a strong summer line-up of foreign and local releases will restore the box office to pre-SARS levels.

Hong Kong box office receipts plummeted by around 47% during the peak of the crisis in March but improved slightly in May, which was down 20.2% compared to the previous May, according to industry body, the Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA).

"The box office picked up in May with the release of X-Men 2 and The Matrix Reloaded but we still have a long way to go before we can claim recovery," said MPIA chief executive Woody Tsung. "Fortunately the line-up for summer is looking quite positive."

Among the local films set for release this summer are EMG's vampire actioner The Twins Effect, which opens June 24, romantic comedies Love Undercover 2 (July 3) and Good Time, Bed Times (July 26) and star-studded action picture The Heroic Duo (July 31).

EMG's long-awaited Jackie Chan vehicle, The Medallion (formerly known as Highbinders), is also scheduled for release on August 15.

In addition, Thai comedy Iron Ladies 2 and Homerun from Singapore's Jack Neo are expected to do good business. International blockbusters include The Hulk, which opened June 19, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life - which is likely to interest local audiences as it was partly filmed in Hong Kong - and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines.

However, exhibitors are concerned that the shortened summer holiday period - a consequence of schools and colleges being closed during the SARS outbreak - could have a negative impact on business. "In theory it will cut normal attendance because students are still busy preparing for exams," said Tsung.

Another concern has been the difficulty of securing release slots as several films were held back during the SARS outbreak, creating a bottleneck.

Worst hit were Hong Kong-China co-productions - usually released in both territories simultaneously - which couldn't open in Beijing after the authorities closed cinemas at the end of April.

Among the films affected is Universe Entertainment's My Dream Girl, which was delayed by one month and will now open July 11 in China and July 17 in Hong Kong. "The Hong Kong circuits helped us out by filling the original slot with a film that was focused on the Hong Kong market," said Universe COO Alvin Lam.

Hong Kong's peak box office seasons have traditionally been Chinese New Year (in January or February), summer and Christmas. But with an increasing number of Hong Kong producers making films for the mainland market, China's Labour Day and National Day holidays (in May and October respectively) are also becoming important box office periods.

Consequently, China Star is planning to release Johnnie To's Running On Karma, starring Andy Lau and Cecilia Cheung, on October 1. Universe's Hit Team 2 is also scheduled for release around this period.