HONG KONG cinemas and the film industry may be facing bleak times but, ironically, they have begun to create a new niche in the music industry - that for original soundtracks, or OSTs to the uninitiated. Although sales of OSTs have by tradition generated 10 per cent or less of the sales of other commercial releases, industry observers have noted a rising number of music lovers turning to OSTs. Commercial Radio disc jockey Lois Kwok Ching, a self-confessed OST junkie who dreams of hosting a programme devoted to the genre one day, said that feedback from her listeners showed that many more music fans were now treading into OST waters. 'I have been listening to soundtracks for a long time and I try to introduce some good songs on my programme,' she said. 'I have been getting a lot of faxes of late from listeners who have gone out to buy the CD after listening to the songs.' Indeed, album sales rankings at large music retailers such as KPS Video Stores and HMV support Kwok's observations. For the week ending May 22, KPS' top 20 international CD charts included five OSTs, with Pulp Fiction at number one, a position it has dominated for the past five weeks. The two versions from Forrest Gump (original score and original soundtrack) was also notching up 'impressive sales', according to one staff member. Others on the chart were Leon: The Professional and Immortal Beloved. 'Although they are no longer on the charts, OSTs from Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Natural Born Killers also moved pretty quickly this year,' the staff member added. At HMV Records in Windsor House, Pulp Fiction has also topped their bestsellers' list for four consecutive weeks, according to retail manager Stuart Fraser. 'Some of our bestsellers have been classic soundtracks such as The Mission, Reservoir Dogs and Betty Blue,' he said. 'It all depends on how good the movie and the music are. Leon and Natural Born Killers were also the top sellers.' At Warner Music, one of their best-selling OSTs has been the score for Batman, which streaked past platinum status. With the third part, Batman Forever, scheduled to open here on June 29, marketing executive Ambrose Aw Chi-fai said he was expecting larger orders from distributors. For PolyGram, it has been last year's sleeper Four Weddings and a Funeral with the Wet Wet Wet runaway smash hit Love is All Around that has broken all barriers. Said Paul Yan Kin-wah, assistant general manager of the label's international pop repertoire: 'There's always been a market for soundtracks but the trend has become more obvious recently. A lot of people are opting to see foreign shows instead of local ones because they find local ones below standards. 'And, naturally, after seeing the show, they would be tempted to buy the soundtrack if they like it.' But, perhaps the bestselling OST of all times around the world would be Whitney Houston's album from her film debut The Bodyguard. Released almost three years ago, the album is still hovering halfway up the authoritative Billboard Top 200 albums chart, putting it in the ranks of cult bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The album is said to have achieved record multi-platinum sales in Hong Kong alone. 'That album is an exception because it was like buying a Whitney album since they were all her songs,' said a spokesman from BMG Records, local distributors for The Bodyguard. The emergence of soundtracks as a competitive genre has been noted by some international companies such as Milan East, a Europe-based company which has branched out into OSTs from mainland Chinese movies, such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Day the Sun Turned Cold, and the Taiwan-based Rock Records which seems to have cornered the Hong Kong-Taiwan movie market. However, CR disc jockey Kwok, who draws inspiration from OSTs for composing songs, said that 'mood music' for Chinese movies tended to be inferior to Western releases. There were exceptions, she said, such as Rock's Centre-stage while He's a Woman, She's a Man sold well because it had a popular Canto-pop hit. Rock Records has been the first Asian recording label to invest a relatively large amount of money in the production of Chinese movie OSTs, and among the big films it has represented are Farewell to My Concubine, Once Upon a Time in China, Drunken Master and Twenty-something. Johnason Lu Shao-kang, Rock Hong Kong's country manager, said that even though they know that sales will barely cover production costs, it had always been Rock's policy to push for Chinese music. Initially the company dealt mainly with mainstream Taiwanese pop but after winning distribution rights for Walt Disney soundtracks, Rock realised that OSTs were an unexplored genre that could be further exploited. 'But we were only doing foreign soundtracks and we got to thinking why we couldn't do Chinese ones? Then we got [Ryuichi Sakamoto's] The Last Emperor which had some very lovely ethnic oriental music,' Mr Lu said. As word got round, Rock found other film-makers approaching it to produce their soundtrack albums and big projects such as Centre-stage, for which Maggie Cheung Man-yuk won the best actress award in Berlin, and Jackie Chan films. 'Films are the engine that drives the entertainment industry because it encompasses every aspect,' said Mr Lu, who is so confident of the future of OSTs that the company is now planning to establish a film division. 'We are planning to do this not because we want to produce 'X' number of films a year or set up a library, but we feel we can try to visualise our understanding of music and its inspiration and hope that better films will come our way. 'I believe we will be able to do better and better as time goes on. And, when that happens, your back catalogue will grow and once the trend has been established, it will be a very big market.'