Digital revolution in China, digital evolution in Japan
A seminar on digital cinema organised by ANEC at Venice Film Festival
by Elisabetta Brunella

Will 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. And now?
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 pictures emerged.

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 with 4K.

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.