revolution in China, digital evolution in Japan
A seminar on digital cinema organised by ANEC at Venice
by Elisabetta Brunella
the cinema of the future be known as Fareastwood?
There are several signs that the centre of gravity in world cinema is
moving east: Asia is shooting an amazing number of films – which Hollywood
often draws on as a reserve of clones and remakes – and is fuelling a
whole network of exchanges, both internal and external. It is sufficient
to remember that last year 27 Chinese titles won 44 awards at 22 international
festivals and that Japanese cinema achieved the excellent market share
of 53% on the domestic market, overturning thirty-years of U.S. supremacy.
In terms of movie theatres, too, the prospects
are such as to whet the appetite of international investors: today a Chinese
citizen buys a ticket every five years. To succeed in getting him in front
of the big screen even once a year would generate a market of 1.3 billion
tickets (i.e. almost as many as are sold today in the U.S.A.). A vitality
that spreads to various markets – China, Korea, Japan – which a privileged
observer such as the Far East Film Festival of Udine, calls “Fareastwood”,
the new Hollywood of the Far East.
New ideas and enormous potential audiences.
But the aesthetic and economic aspects of Fareastwood are closely bound
up with technical and technological ones.
Asia, a pioneer of digital cinema.
The Far East has been a pioneer in the digital transition, thanks
mostly to China and Japan: in June 2004, there were 110 2K projectors
in Asia, as against the 85 of North America and the 37 in Europe.
At the end of 2006 these figures had become
347, 1,957 and 532 respectively: in other words, in a little over two
and a half years, Asia, whilst tripling its digital screens, found itself
last in line in the process of spreading the new technology. It was ANEC,
the Italian cinema exhibitors’ association - who took on the task of examining
in greater detail the path towards digital cinema in China and Japan.
Alongside the presentation of Angelo D’Alessio’s book “Cinema tecnologicus”
in Venice on 4 September, authoritative representatives of these two markets
were invited to explain the present situation and trends in the digital
transition. From the words of Naohisa Ohta, Professor at Keio, the prestigious
private Japanese university, and Zhu Zhu of Digital Darwin, rather different
Japan: while experiments continue
with 4K technology, digital screens offer films and Kabuki.
In the first case, that of Japan, the emphasis is on cutting-edge technology:
today the commercial offer of digital cinema centres around seventy screens
(out of a total of around 3,000), mostly 2K. Of these, three are also
fitted for 3D projection. Nevertheless, there are also six 4K screens,
though still in the experimental phase. It seems that it is mainly T-Joy,
a chain that is part of the multimedia giant Toho, to believe in digital.
After starting to experiment with digital projection as early as 2000
and adapting its digital screens to comply with DCI requirements in 2005,
T-Joy also boasts a 100% digital complex and has announced that by 2011,
it will have 200 digital screens. And so, despite the fact that 4K technology
bears a Japanese stamp, T-Joy does not seem willing to wait until this
enters the commercial phase and continues along the path of 2K. From the
point of view of content, too, T-Joy is inclined towards innovation: at
the Shinjuku, the 9-screen “all digital” cinema, 18% of the box-office
is generated by alternative content. On the big screen Japanese audiences
enjoy both classical music (for example, events at the New York Metropolitan),
confirming an international trend, and also a uniquely Japanese art genre,
such as Kabuki. To the extent that 2K filming techniques are being experimented
with and no longer High Definition only. Capturing and transmitting images
with increasingly higher resolutions is a challenge that Japanese industry
and academies are taking up. Keio University plays a leading role in all
this: Prof. Ohta has experimented with 4K digital transmission at an intercontinental
level and was in Italy last July to shoot 4K footage in Milan Cathedral.
He will not commit himself to a confirmation, but many people attribute
the prudence of Japanese operators towards the digital phenomenon to the
fact that they are waiting to see the results of this battery of experiments
China: a mixture of electronic and digital cinema.
Judging by the number of 2K screens, China, too, seems
to have slowed down its march towards digital: but – warned Zhu Zhu –
a deeper analysis of what is going on in this huge country shows that
the government is still willing to promote the expansion of cinema-going
through the use of new technologies. However, the process is taking place
on three different levels, using both 2K projectors and servers that comply
with DCI standards (costing around 100,000 dollars per system) but also
using more accessible equipment that can be purchased for around 20,000
or even 5,000 dollars. A range of different usages corresponds to this
technological hierarchy: top quality is reserved for the new generation
of cinemas in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where there are audiences
that can afford expensive entertainment, such as viewing the big domestic
productions and imported films, mostly Hollywood blockbusters. The second
and third-range systems are destined for other towns and cities throughout
the country and even country areas and theatres set up inside large industrial
complexes, where workers from a large number of regions come not only
to work, but also to live.
And even if Hollywood does not agree to its films being shown on this
type of screen, Zhu Zhu points out that outside the big cities American
cinema is practically non-existent, whilst there is keen interest in domestic
productions – moreover extremely numerous – dealing with life styles and
themes that are closer to the experience of the local populations. Considering
that there are already around 5,000 third-range projectors and that another
1,500 should be ready, in the Beijing area alone, for the 2008 Olympics,
the fact that, in March, 2007 700 2K DLP Cinema projectors were ordered
from Barco and that an output of 50 digital titles a year is foreseen
for the near future, Zhu Zhu feels himself justified in affirming that
the adoption of the new technologies in his country is anything but declining.
The right terms to define the processes taking place in Japan and in China
should therefore be – in the words of Angelo D’Alessio – respectively
evolution and revolution.