For Hong Kong’s film industry to thrive, it must embrace the digital like India and the US have
This article appeared originally in the South China Morning Post on 6 September 2020.
Author: Helen So, researcher, and Yolanda Lam, intern at Our Hong Kong Foundation
With cinemas reopening in Hong Kong last week, we are finally able to quench our thirst for silver screen experiences. The hiatus has also prompted us to rethink the future of cinema in the digital age. Hong Kong is blessed with cinematic talents. From Suk Suk (2019) and Still Human (2018) to 3 Generations 3 Days (2019), local filmmakers have continued to portray the unique spirit of our city and its people. The government, however, must offer more avenues for their work to shine. Undoubtedly, the government is committed to building a healthy ecosystem for the film industry: it injected HK$1 billion (US$128 million) into the Film Development Fund this year, the largest amount since 1999, and implemented five new measures in July to energise the industry amid Covid-19, including a Director’s Succession Scheme, Scriptwriting Incubation Programme and free short-term advanced training courses. Despite good intentions, nostalgia underlies funding policies for the film sector. Current policies are hindered by an era of Hong Kong cinema – the 1980s – that policymakers can’t seem to let go of. They have yet to embrace digital transformations in film production, exhibition and consumption.
With the advent of over-the-top (OTT) media services, film distribution has diversified to include straight-to-streaming release and video-on-demand format, such as Netflix, iQiyi.com and Tencent Video. But the scope of Film Development Fund remains restricted to commercial films produced for theatrical release. Currently, productions that wish to distribute through other media platforms need to seek funding from another source – the CreateSmart Initiative. This not only fractures film financing, but also reduces opportunities for microfilms, restricts participation and blocks alternative distribution channels.
Meanwhile, nearby film industries have long begun to think beyond cinema screens, looking to support online film and investment in digital content libraries. India, for instance, has one of the fastest-growing video OTT markets in the world, projected to expand at 18.1 per cent annually between 2020 and 2024, compared to a worldwide growth rate of 11.5 per cent. The pandemic is certainly accelerating this growth.
Cross-sector and cross-platform partnerships are invigorating India’s digital entertainment sector, in which film plays an integral part. Companies are working together to target regional markets, explore digital film rights and come up with innovative monetisation models. All of this is happening without jeopardising the population’s passion for cinema.
Similarly in the US, legacy media corporations, such as Disney and Lions Gate Entertainment, generated nearly 20 per cent of their revenue this year from direct-to-customer services through digital platforms. Though moving to online distribution channels is a tough decision to make for filmmakers, some films have shown considerable success: DreamWorks and Universal’s Trolls World Tour (2020) grossed nearly US$100 million in digital sales within three weeks of its online release. Mainland action-comedy Lost In Russia (2020) recorded 600 million views in three days following its digital debut. For years, Hong Kong’s film policies have exhibited an unwavering desire to cultivate “cinema-going habits” among young audiences, for example, through student discounts to film festivals. However, this desire seems somewhat outdated in the age of digitisation. This is not to say that cinemas will become obsolete, or that film education is unimportant. But policymakers must recognise that young audiences today are best targeted online. Members of Generation Z – the first generation to grow up with online entertainment at their fingertips – consumes content from the comfort of their homes. Film appreciation has become ubiquitous.
The film industry must keep up with evolving viewing habits to thrive. In addition to supporting non-theatrical releases, films for theatrical release should be available on legitimate streaming platforms (with monetisation strategies) to expand viewership. The demand for instantaneous, diverse and quality content is sure to intensify. Instead of separating the OTT market from the traditional film sector, the two should cooperate to drive the industry. The coexistence of rich online content and physical screenings is likely to be the future norm for film, if it is not already so. Although cinematic experiences cannot be replicated through computers, smartphones and television screens, online releases are not second-best. Rather than harking back to Hong Kong cinema’s glorious past, government policies should reflect an open-mindedness towards the convergence of arts and technology. Our new generation of filmmakers can shine only if we look towards the future possibilities for film in the digital era.