You can't blame today's television idols for feeling trapped on the small screen. During Hong Kong cinema's heyday, from the 1980s to the early 1990s, TV celebrity was an entree to big screen stardom. The era's superstars, such as Chow Yun-fat, Stephen Chow Sing-chi and Andy Lau Tak-wah, received their initial training and fame on videotape in the late 1970s and 1980s before transforming into movie giants. And after making the transition, they earned a fortune in box office receipts and won the lion's share of Hong Kong Film Awards for a decade or more. But look at the best actor and actress nominees so far this century and you'll be hard-pressed to find a name that has emerged from television since the mid-1990s. Indeed, the roster is still dominated by now middle-aged TVB veterans, supplemented by a contingent of mainland thesps such as Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Vicki Zhao Wei. With Hong Kong's annual output shrinking from more than 200 feature films in the early 1990s to about 50 in recent years, there simply isn't much opportunity to make the leap from television to the multiplex. And even if an occasional picture arises, it's hardly a guarantee of enduring stardom. At their box office zenith, Chow Yun-fat and Stephen Chow were able to churn out an average of one movie a month, getting audiences used to the idea of paying to see them rather than just switching on the TV to see them gratis. In this regard, Hong Kong has always been something of an anomaly when compared to Hollywood. American audiences traditionally have been reluctant to pay for a ticket to see artistes they can watch at home for free. Similarly, pundits overseas have been loath to give such upstarts awards, with Tom Hanks and Sally Fields more the exception than the rule. By contrast, local audiences and critics have been far more tolerant - due in part to broadcast TV's relatively late arrival in 1967. The close relationship between TVB and Shaw Brothers was also a factor in reducing the stigma associated with small-screen celebrity, with figures such as Michael Hui Koon-man and Sam Hui Koon-kit moving from their Hui Brothers Show to big screen fare with ease, to eventually become the decade's top-grossing film personalities. And so it continued for the next 20 years. The trend slowed to a virtual halt around the same time the industry began to sputter in 1992. That coincided with Louis Koo Tin-lok's move into TVB, making him one of Hong Kong's last television-turned-movie stars and, at 38, the station's youngest alumnus to garner an acting nomination this year (for Run Papa Run). Among his fellow best actor contenders at the awards on Sunday is Simon Yam Tat-wah (Sparrow), who received his television training in the 1970s, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Red Cliff), who 'graduated' in the 1980s. Nick Cheung Ka-fai (The Beast Stalker), despite gaining renown on TV in the 1990s, actually began in motion pictures during the previous decade. The best actress aspirants are a more diverse group, including three not primarily associated with television: mainland star Zhou Xun (Painted Skin), singer-actresses Prudence Liew Mei-kwan (True Women for Sale) and Karena Lam Ka-yan (Claustrophobia). The Way We Are's Paw Hee-ching (left), although known mostly for her television work, started out at the Great Wall movie studio more than 30 years ago. It's instructive that of the 10 best acting nominees, only Barbie Hsu Hsi-yuan (Connected) is a bona fide 21st century TV star, albeit in Taiwan, where, unlike Hong Kong, it still appears possible for a young career rooted in video to blossom into cinema acclaim.