Digital means quantity, not always quality

Panelists told technology makes life easier for filmmakers

HONG KONG -- Digital technology makes it easier for beginning filmmaking, but that only drives up the number of films, not quality, panelists noted at Monday's discussion on the future of international film organized by Salon Films in association with the U.S. Consulate General.

Digital technology is forcing changes in the modes of distribution, but changes might come in the form of increased specialization, or, as have often been said contrarily, bring about the end of tradition theatrical distribution.

"Filmmaking nowadays is compromised by a lowered standard of expectation of the audience under 18 that's used to watching videos online, where you see talents and material squandered and murdered," said Warwick Teale, Hewlett-Packard principal media and entertainment solution architect.

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Robert Beitcher, Motion Picture and Television Fund CEO, agreed. "Though the lowered price for equipment is turning filmmaking more democratic, it's going to produce more film but not better films," he said. "The barrier of entry drops down, and there are more crap films, crap music, crap novels, but few people are saying how many more fabulous films were made. You lose sight of the human talents that create lasting artistic impressions."

As for the cost and time saved using digital technology in commercial film productions, "the money and time sucked out by using digital technology are used up in postproduction," Beitcher said.

But digital technology will prove conducive to distribution in countries like China, said Fred Wang, Salon Film chairman. "For a film like 'Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince' to be distributed in China, the prints alone cost US$45 million. Therefore to save costs, conversion to digital exhibition systems will be faster in China."

Beitcher believed that the lower cost for digital distribution would bring about more specialization in foreign cinema. "World cinema will be like world music, become a more tangible thing in the U.S.," he said.

However, the more audience-oriented mode of distribution, where "people just watch what they want when they want," would threaten the traditional mode of theatrical distribution, Teale argued. "Stereoscopic distribution is in its infancy. Digital video-on-demand and video streaming will bring about the demise of the cinema as we know it."

The compressed window between theatrical and DVD release will also push the film industry to be more hit driven. Moreover, since a Hollywood movie's success or failure is known across the world instantly, film owners would strive to generate big opening numbers in order to buoy the film's performance in foreign markets.

As for Asia to compete with the mammoth budget of Hollywood stereoscopic 3D productions, Salon chairman Fred Wang used the VCD player prevalent in Asia but rejected elsewhere in the 1990s as example to postulate how Chinese filmmakers will experiment with stereoscopic 3D and test its technology. "China is a testing market to see if something works, whereas Western manufacturers want to maintain profits and therefore are more reluctant to change. Now is a good time for China to catch up and to lead the economy for change."