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Future tech

Hong Kong’s ailing film industry can play a leading role in a hi-tech economy

Albert Cheng says the next chief executive should focus on transforming the city into a world leader in virtual reality and a post-production hub, to boost the economy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 5:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 11:17am

After three weeks of electioneering to be Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has a comfortable lead ahead of her two opponents in terms of support from the small circle of 1,194 electors – despite being unpopular among ordinary Hongkongers. There is little doubt the former chief secretary will emerge as the winner on Sunday.

However, it would be difficult for her to lead a government when her credibility is low. She can secure enough votes to win, but not the hearts and minds of the people.

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If elected, the first thing Lam must do is restore people’s trust. For this, she should focus her attention on one vital subject: the Hong Kong economy. I would advise her to steer public attention back to how to keep the city prosperous. How Hong Kong can ride the global wave of innovation and technology should feature prominently in her first 100 days.

When it comes to innovation and technology, people often think of fintech, start-ups, and research and development. They overlook one important opportunity here: the film industry. In her manifesto, Lam states that in the face of competition, the city “should continue to nurture talents in the film industry by providing training to those involved in film production and post-production, and provide assistance in the further development of the industry”.

This is probably one of the very few issues where I agree with her. The government should invest in the future of Hong Kong by transforming this creative and energetic city into a post-production hub and world leader in virtual reality technology.

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Hong Kong has nurtured a critical mass of talent in the film industry over the years. It is a matter of how our leader can unleash this vast potential.

The policy so far has been to invest a relatively small amount of taxpayers’ money to help Hong Kong’s technology firms leap forward. Yet, the logic of a matching fund in collaboration with venture capitalists defies common sense. Once they spot a good movie script, opportunistic investors would rather pocket all the profits, rather than sharing it with the government.

Instead of fumbling around trying to pick winners, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung’s might be better to focus on assisting Hong Kong firms that are already on the right track to climb to the next level.

Hong Kong filmmakers used to produce up to 200 movies a year in the 1980s and 1990s, when the industry was hailed as a pillar of the local economy. However, as its counterparts in Taiwan and the mainland continue to mature, Hong Kong’s creative industry has gone downhill. Virtual reality technology could be the key to help the city turn the tide.

The flat, uninspiring ideas in the policy addresses every year are devoid of imagination. The next chief executive must take prompt action

Despite the lack of government support, local entrepreneurs have seized some of the opportunities. Actor Nicholas Tse Ting-fung is a shining example. He launched Post Production Office in 2003 to focus on post-production work for commercials and movies. He branched out in Shanghai and Beijing before selling 60 per cent of the firm to a listed company. However, its Hong Kong operations had to fold mainly because of runaway rentals and high labour costs. The is one of the many budding businesses which ended up moving away from Hong Kong.

The company has now been taken over by Digital Domain, which is chaired by Taiwanese businessman Peter Chou. It is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and can be promoted as a success story of our own. Digital Domain is based in the US, with its production studio located in Vancouver. Its special effects expertise is behind many Hollywood blockbusters, including Iron Man 3 and Transformers, to name but two. Many have asked, why Canada? Why not America? Or China? In fact, the answer lies in the local government’s aggressive incentives for investors.

By contrast, the Hong Kong government has been sitting on its hands. The flat, uninspiring ideas in the policy addresses every year are devoid of imagination. The next chief executive must take prompt action. When a good plan is not implemented, it remains at best an idea. Hong Kong can ill afford to let good ideas slip away.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk