How can creative industry stay afloat amid the COVID-19 crisis?

How can creative industry stay afloat amid the COVID-19 crisis?

The creative sectors are among the most severely impacted by the pandemic. Cultural and art events are being postponed or cancelled worldwide. Film production has been halted and cinemas have been shuttered. The livelihoods of creative practitioners are imperiled as they are mostly self-employed or on short-term or project-based contracts. How can the creative industry restore confidence in audience to return to theaters? How to rebuild creative industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a sustainable way?

To understand the sustainable ways to restore artists' livelihoods in the short and long term, China Daily Asia Leadership Roundtable organized a virtual roundtable with prominent speakers Mr. Albert LEE, executive director, Hong Kong International Film Festival Society; Mr. LOW Kee Hong, head of theater (performing arts), West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong SAR; Mr. TANG Fu Kuen, curator, Taipei Arts Festival; and Mr. Fred WANG, chairman, Salon Films (HK) Ltd. Mr. Teddy CHEN, producer and director, Sum-Wood Productions Ltd, shared his views on the topic in a pre-recorded video. Below are some of the key points they shared during the event:

How the film festival and arts festival respond to the coronavirus crisis? Are there any amendments made?

Albert LEE: Because of the COVID-19, Hong Kong International Film Festival had to be canceled for the first time in our history. We will try to actually schedule some screenings and some programs before the end of the year. But in the meantime, we have already started preparing for next year’s edition.

TANG Fu Kuen: Taipei Arts Festival has been very blessed to be able to continue. All the theatres are opening at full capacity. We have created what we call a pandemic program that responds to the circumstances of non-travel. We are trying various kinds of models of working. Several of our shows are sold out. So, I think the audience is willing and hungry to come back.

With social distancing and self-isolation becoming the new norm, how can the industry adapt to this “new normal” and keep business going?

Albert LEE: Cinemas are in great difficulty at the moment because of reduced capacity owing to social distancing restrictions and all the stakeholders should work together to help the industry survive instead of relying solely on the government to bail it out of the crisis. The biggest expenditure of running a cinema in Hong Kong are the rentals, followed by staff salaries and film producers’ fees. Thus, a combined effort from everyone is needed to keep the cinemas afloat.

LOW Kee Hong: The theater community has pushed the boundaries to try to engage the audience. What we’re doing is not just about a stopgap measure but, essentially, a combination of digital live (performances) and a presentation of other unusual platforms like gaming, and even analog space. Theaters around the world have demonstrated their creativity, introducing “pods” or “cubicles” accommodating four to five audience members to enjoy the show. There’re also drive-in cinemas, concerts and museums for visualizing exhibitions.

TANG Fu Kuen: It is important to keep theaters’ physical spaces in use during a public health crisis, rather than just freezing all of them overnight. So long as theaters are running, it’ll keep the phase going. And it’ll still keep some livelihoods, some jobs and a sense of survival of the whole industry.

How can the industry make good use of space amid the coronavirus crisis?

LOW Kee Hong: I think while the health regulations are still in place, obviously within theaters where you have to deal with social distancing, we do have a lot of outdoor spaces. And this is perhaps one way in which we can also start to reimagine performances outdoors while embracing different restrictions that are in place.

Fred WANG: The government has to take the lead. They should set up a good arrangement to have a good venue for the general public that not only allows them to enjoy the films, but also can be of multiple uses – for games, musical presentations or even for government lecturing and voting.

What new opportunities can the film industry seize amid the pandemic?

Albert LEE: All the new releases are on hold. So, I think there is certainly a good window for smaller local indie films. I don’t think that they will be excluded from any cinemas. But at the end of the day, it is a business. You have to look at the return. If the film, once it’s been released, if it’s being supported by the audience, it will get a run.

Fred WANG: The film industry needed to try out new business models and observe whether the current environment can support these in a sustainable way. Even popular streaming platforms like Netflix are lacking in new content due to the pandemic. Content is king. Good content is needed before getting a mass distribution in the market.

What is your view towards the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ etc? Is it good for the development of the film industry?

Teddy CHEN: The rise of streaming platforms is not necessarily a bad thing. I welcome the idea of people viewing films on multiple platforms like cinema hall, home theatre, live-streaming platforms and on television.

Can digital shows replace physical ones?

Teddy CHEN: Watching movies in the cinema is a kind of social behavior. Despite having good audio electronics and a 100-foot screen at home, watching movies with few people at home can’t replace the experience of the cinema – where you share the joy with hundreds of people, and the intense atmosphere while watching thriller movies. The feelings are different.

TANG Fu Kuen: We (Taipei Arts Festival) are very lucky as audience and artists are able to enter the theaters. I have rejected all kinds of online programs, which means that I resist this whole digital fatigue. Instead, we are combining the digital element with the performance in order to lift the overall quality.

LOW Kee Hong: One of the big limitations of digital performance, obviously is that the performers cannot see the audience or cannot interact with them. I think the use of different types of newer modes of mediums, like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, can point us to possible directions.

Fred WANG: Nowadays, everything is digital. Films can be distributed in multiple languages, multiple formats and multiple locations. This really makes the film industry not just for entertainment, but also for changing our lifestyle. The industry itself today welcomes all sorts of new things with an open mind. However, none of these will become mainstream in a short period of time. You need a strong production company to make use of them and the infrastructure ready for distributing your programs. Then, you need a marketing team that can draw a lot of audiences to your programs.

How can those in performing arts survive the pandemic? Any innovative ways to help their shows go on?

LOW Kee Hong: Now is the time for us and the artists to discover more possibilities to maintain our presence. Meanwhile, we need to engage with different audiences continuously. In the longer term, we need to start thinking about different financial models. We need to rethink the choices of platforms and how we can monetize different platforms so that artists and staff can be paid fairly. It is really essential to acknowledge that art is not for free.

TANG Fu Kuen: Some of the artists in the industry will remain sunk into melancholia for the better days of the past. They may not be able to cope with the future, while others will have the will and wisdom to move on. And they will be the ones who will renovate and innovate for survival.

What is your forecast about the recovery of the creative industry?

Teddy CHEN: The pandemic has had a big effect on the film industry and other industries. The audience can feel 100 percent safe to watch movies in the cinema only after the coronavirus vaccines are released for public use. Because cinema is a closed area, the customers may not feel 100 percent safe regarding the ventilation system.

Albert LEE: The film industry needs three to four years for recovery. We need to recalibrate the entire industry and make changes in order to adapt to the “new normal”. It will be a long recovery process. I am concerned about the short-to-medium term development of the film industry. However, I am still hopeful about the prospects of the film industry in the long run.

Fred WANG: I foresee a bright future for the film industry. The new blood will develop a new business models to support its future development. We should let the market try a lot of new things. The film industry should not only care about the quality of films and revenue earned. It should care more about how to bring up the whole population’s standard on the film appreciation so that the society can be a better one.

TANG Fu Kuen: Let’s say we have not seen the fullest impact of COVID-19. If we are lucky, a vaccine should be found by the middle of next year. Then, hopefully, things can go back to the routine. But the question is: do we want to return to the old ways (of the performances)?