Can building more cinemas revive Hong Kong’s film industry?

 —  Article by Serene Lim
Jackie Chan statue on Hong Kong's walk of fame
Image credit: Shutterstock

Its film industry may have had its ups and downs over the years but Hong Kong’s long standing relationship with the silver screen remains strong.

Things could be looking up again as the government tries to boost the local film industry which has declined in recent years due to overproduction and lower standards as well as piracy and the onslaught of Hollywood movies. Its solution? Ensure more cinemas are being built.

The government has announced it would be mandatory for developers to include cinemas for two upcoming commercial land sites in the Kai Tak and Sha Tin neighbourhoods. Conditions even include a minimum number of seats, and a ban on reducing seats and preventing landlords from changing the purpose of the cinema.

Yet questions remain whether more cinemas would really help raise the profile and viability of made-in-Hong Kong films. “More cinemas don’t necessarily lead to more movie-watchers and support for the local film industry,” says Cathie Chung, National Director of Research at JLL Hong Kong. “For cinemas to be attractive to consumers, that depends on the kind of movies screened and if there are any other value-added services and offerings to increase their appeal.”

Managing supply and demand

Hong Kong’s appetite for film looks promising on paper. Cinema revenue doubled from HK$950 million (US$122 million) in 2005 to HK$1.9 billion (US$244 million) in 2015 according to Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced picture of the city’s cinematic woes.

Hollywood blockbusters such as Avengers: Age of the Ultron and Jurassic World made up a growing share of box-office receipts in 2015. In fact, Hong Kong’s box office registered its first decline after a decade last year with the number of cinema admissions falling by 5 percent. And a report by the Hong Kong Theatres Association last year revealed that there are now only 47 cinemas offering 37,420 seats in 2016 compared to 119 cinemas with 121,885 seats in 1993.

High rentals are another issue. Entertainment conglomerate Emperor’s first cinema venture in Central sees it forking out HK$1.2 million monthly for a two-storey space.

Chung points out that while market forces will influence the decision to open a cinema, government support could still go a long way. “The site requirements for cinema is not conventional. It is not always easy for cinemas to find a spot that fits all the regulatory and business requirements of cinemas,” she explained. “If the government really wants to promote this industry, setting some fixed requirements in specific site could help – presuming that the government has studied the viability and potential demand for a cinema in the site and surrounding area.”

Nevertheless, the signal from the government is clear. Some mall operators have begun including cinema tenants. MTR Corp’s upcoming Maritime Square extension above Tsing Yi station will have UA Cinema as its anchor tenant.

Inspiring future film makers

A new wave of Hong Kong film makers is also helping the local film industry to reach new audiences. Local film Mad World by first time director Wong Chun performed well at the block office while Trivisa from three young directors won two prizes at the Golden Horse Awards and scooped up five awards including Best Film at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.

Ultimately, better exposure and critical acclaim of Hong Kong films are needed on top of strong distribution channels including cinemas in prime locations. “The government can do more to explore new markets for Hong Kong movies, organize events to promote them, give financial subsidy for film makers, look into on-going training and more opportunities for film-makers, actors and crew to raise the standards and hone their craft,” suggests Chung.

“If demand for Hong Kong-made films rises from both local and overseas audiences as a result of these measures, it benefits the industry and puts it in good stead for the long-run.”

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