In an effort to provide updates on the CineAsia 2014 conference and trade show presently taking place in Hong Kong SAR, this post was written live, and in the present tense, during one of the event’s presentations. Comments attributed to speaker(s) are paraphrased unless denoted specifically by quotation marks. [Also no spell check on my tablet version of WordPress. Sorry.]
Dolby’s Senior VP Ioan Allen introduces the ICTA discussion with a distinguidshed panel of exhibitors, distributors, consultants and Hollywood studio reps, then sits down and joins them. They are:
Irving Chee, General Manager, Golden Screen Cinemas
Brian Hall, Exhibitor Consultant
Brett D. Hogg, Senior Vice President, International Distribution, Sony Pictures Releasing International
Sunder Kimatrai, Executive Vice President, Asia Pacific, Twentieth Century Fox International
“Three of you come year after year, so you must be good,” Ioan observes and then asks them what has surprised them in the last 12 months. Irving says “not too much surprised me but the slow and steady decline of 3D movies is a concern. That’s a little bit on the downside.” He questions how effective 3D is whether shot or converted in terms of audiences perceiving value.
Brian echoes that. “Customers have become much more important. Five years ago people were wowed by Avatar,” but now they are more discerning. Brian then points out that Hollywood studios have become better at filling the gap between the [Christmas] holiday and the summer box office, but this year there was a gap after the summer, “though this might have been an anomaly.” Ioan asks whether in 2015, the offical ‘Year of the Blockbuster’, there is adanger of ‘clumping’ that will see too many big films released too close together.
Brett observed “We are glad that Sony has survived the last 12 months, particularly recently.” Ioan jokingly retorts, “I wasn’t going to bring that up,” but Brett says “It’s the elephant in the room.” Brett then aknowledges that that ‘clumping’ does continue to happen, “but hopefully where is small and medium size films that do find an audience.” Ioan asks if we were getting to a natural equilibrium when it comes to the number of 3D films. Brett says that this could be the case not just for 3D but also for 4DX and other new technolgies.
Sunder echoes the comments about 3D, “Having said that, 3D is not going away. It is going to cater to different audiences’ preferences.” He said that he has not noted a decrease in the differential of the premium. “Other big surprises is the return of [analogue] film with “Interstellar” – seriously? Talk about sending mixed signals after we spent a lot of energy converting the industry [to digital] and spent large sums of money to get there. That’s a big surprise to me.” Ioan interjects “The consumers don’t know the difference, maybe for 70mm.”
Brian notes that having seen “Interstellar” in 70mm in NYC on the opening night with his daughter he aknowledges that there was a difference, but “was it noticably different – not necessarily.” Ioan asks whether 70mm film is no more meaningless than the 60-odd other three-letter acronym PLFs. With Brian having seen “Interstellar” four times, he said “hands down” the best experience was Imax 70mm. He aknowledges that Imax has created a great brand and experience, before then issuing a warning for them [Imax] not to down-sell it.
Sunder points to break-out films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “The Fault in Our Stars” and also “Gone Girl” in certain markets. “The audience is broadening and that is an encouraging sign for all of us, exhibitors and distributors. That diversification creates a healthy market for us all.” Ioan asks which market has shown most growth. Sunder says that even challenging markets have stabilised, pointing to Japan. “Even mature markets, look at Korea, we see groth, while in markets like Vietnam and Indonesia we are seeing double digit growth. We are fortunate to be in a part of the world where there is significant growth.”
Irving is asked if the demographic is changing. “No, the age group is still very young. South-East Asia has that advantage. That said, in Malaysia animation has grown well for tween, teens and young adlts. The big difference for Malaysia is that there is more global-centric movies, compared to US-centric films. The reach is global, rather than just US. Hong Kong-centric movies do well.”
Brett is asked if leaving “The Grand Budapest Hotel” aside, is Hollywood targeting a different age category. Brett says that for blockbusters the age group focus is the same as for the past five year, but that it is broadening for other titles. “And I don’t see it changing in the next five years.” Brian adds to that “there has been a fine-tuning of product for the global market, rather than tweaking the script for the US market.” He points to the Asia success of “Big Hero 6” and “Transformers 4”. “That packs a much bigger punch at the international box office when film makers think that way. Rather than just thinking spaghetti they also include noodles,” Brian jokes.
Ioan then switches the talk to technologies and the two presentation changes, one which is projected and the other that is the seat. “Can the industry afford to go through more technology changes and where will the money come from? Can the audience be perusaded by it?” Irving Chee says that “techonlogy change is inevitable. The question is whether it will be widespread or niche. We have just put D-Box in three-four rows” of some of their cinemas. He then points to smartphones and the changes this brings and how young people want bragging rights. “It is that point of differentiatio, when young kids get together and say ‘I’ve done this.'”. There is room for both large scale and niche, pointing the large format and shaking seats.
Brian says that if you look at where all the growth has come from in the last 20 years it has been where new screens have grown, “so we are shifting the box office. But the worry is technology just pursuing technology, rather than improving the experience.” He then reminds people that in addition to being about the story, it is also about the light levels and then aknowledges that even in his own cinemas that has not always been great. “We all have to make an effort with it.”
Brett says “there has been more change in the last ten years than in the 90 years before that. Is it just technology chasing technology, or is it puling the audience back to show them something they can’t get at home by building a home cinema? 100 years from now cinema may be in the round, we might be watching in four dimensions. Ultimately it will be drawn by what audiences want.”
Sunder says that “some innovations lead to lasting improvements, but it is important that the industry continues to develop and innovate. Some will stick. Sometimes the consumer doesn’t know what he wants, in which case you have to probe around the edges. Nobody knew they wanted an iPhone.” Ioan puts his proverbial Dolby hat on when he says that audiences might now know by brand what made them like a film, though he would love for them to run out and shout “that was great in Dolby.”
Ioan then comes down hard on day-and-date window film releasing. He asks if the window is shortening in Asia. Irving says that windows in Malaysia are fairly stable. “The problem is with too many movies, they don’t get enough play time.” A local premium VoD outing of a local film led it to being pulled form cinemas pretty quickly. Brian jokes that it could be a mistake to give him the microphone on this issue. He says there is a disconnect between exhibition and distribution on the issue. “This issue is very schozophrenic where should it be, when should it be, by whom, how does it price?” His advice is to make it relevant for consumers, because with piracy sites, “you are getting 100% of nothing.” He advocates selling online at USD $1 to capture some of that market and revenue.
Brett emphasizes that distribution and exhibition is a partnership. “We don’t make a $200 million film NOT to put it in the cinema. That is the premium experience we work down from.” He then says that there are audiences that don’t go to cinema. “That could be price sensitive. We agree that there needs to be a theatrical window. But that will shorten. We don’t see that as threatening the theatrical experience.” He points to the generational shift of his friend’s 4-year old son who tries to swipe a computer screen, like he would a tablet.
Sunder: “the most important window for us anywhere in the world is the theatrical window. At the same time, our objective is to maximise the return on ivestment in the content that we have created.” To do that they have to maximise expoitation on all windows. There is a time when films come off cinema when it is not available on any platform, which Fox refers to as “the dark period.” That is when pirates step in and provide. The trick is cater for that without eating into theatrcail. Fox has experimented with super premium VoD, “we are testing, we don’t know yet, but we will not undermine the theatrical window.”
Ioan again. “The name on this box [session] has ‘technology’ and I’m a great proponent” but then points to the flatscreen in his hotel that is stuck in widescreen mode for all content, making everyone fat. “How do we ensure that audiences are guaranteed a better experience in cinemas?” Irving says that the digitisation has done a lot to improve the experience, though there are still screens that are too dim. “But the techonlgoy is there now where practically all screening are of a reasonable standard.” Ioan says that even in 2D there is not enough light. “Too many cinemas have let go projectionists and kept an IT guy who doesn’t know enough about presentation.”
Irving points to the difference that 3D sound has made and recalls the difference when Jurassic Park came out with DTS sound. “Ultimately consumers will make the choice of what is offered.” Sunder is asked whether quality comes into considertation when it comes to chosing chains to show their films. Sunder aknowledges that they are pragmatic and that they want their films to be screened widely. “Sometimes we forget how far we’ve come. As recently as five-six years back; ee have seen vasts improvements of technology. I was in Myanmar recenty and I was amazed by the quality of what I saw on the screen. This is as much of an emerging market as you can get.”
Brett recalls the digital converison process. “As part of that responsibility there are committments by both distributors and exhibitors a committment to maintain a certain level of quality when it comes to the equipment. There is the responsibility for exhibitors to deliver a presentation that makes people want to come back,” but he also says that distributors also have to provide the appropriate content. Sunder talks about the re-emergence of THX in China and says that this is a good ting because it elevates consumers’ expectations.
Ioan asks a few quick questions, “2K or 4K?” Deafening silence – followed by laughter. The panel aknowledges that there isn’t much that can be noticed by the average viewer. “HFR?” – Brian says, “different stroked for different folks,” while Sunder aknowledges that “different generations have different expectations.” Brian then holds up his smartphone and says the biggest change is going to come from it. “The social experience of watching a film in a crowd” he says is linked to the social media environment of audiences through their smartphones. And this could make the biggest impact on cinema going in the next few years. Brett echoes that, saying “we are all over social media” and highlights how they want to be able to convert social interactions to ticket purchase from watching a trailer or making a date with a friend.
Question from the floor on VoD and whethere there has been an experience of cinemas being involved. Sunder says there has been experiences, not just in Asia, but isn’t aware of case studioes per-se and that these would anyways be commercially sensitive. With no further questions, Ioan thanks the panel and we break for coffee.