"Film scholars around the world are now talking about re-defining 'film', as films and movies are no longer solely shown at cinemas. Many popular TV series released on streaming platforms can also be viewed as films – they are written, filmed and produced in the same way that movies are. Maybe in the near future, it will be more appropriate to describe film and television as 'screen'!" Professor Man Shu Sum, Associate Director of the Academy of Film, School of Communication of HKBU, shared with us his views on the current trend of the film industry. To give up-to-date lessons, Professor Man follows the latest trends closely – he even discusses with his students TikTok and Kwai, which are among the latest popular video-sharing social networks. "We must talk about them now; they will become out of date very soon," Professor Man said.
Media veteran meeting future producers
Professor Man joined HKBU in 2014, aiming to bring his 40-year experience gained from the film and television industry to his alma mater. Recently, he was appointed as the Dr. Hung Yeung Pong Wah Endowed Professor in Film and Television. Professor Man is one of the few teaching staff at the Academy of Film who possesses all-round experience in Asia's media sector. He has worked on film production and distribution, operated TV channels and radio broadcasting, and created content for TV programmes. To connect and satisfy the more and more demanding TV audiences and creative community of Singapore, he was tasked to set up two brand new cutting edge free-to-air channels to stay relevant. These two channels won Asia Broadcaster of the Year and Asia Terrestrial Channel of the Year titles in the Asian Television Awards. During his term as Director of Broadcast and Film in Singapore's Media Development Authority, he helped develop the nation's film and television industry locally and internationally. He also worked for Hollywood Mark Burnett Productions as Chief Executive Officer for the Asian market. With profound experience in both the public and private sectors, Professor Man is undoubtedly a versatile media veteran.
Six years have passed since Professor Man made the move from the film industry to the academic arena. He said he was always surprised, and sometimes enlightened, by his students, "What I have learned from my students is a lot more than what I have taught them!" Professor Man chose to teach at HKBU because he was grateful for his alma mater and would like to make his contribution in return. In addition, he fully understood that the focus of the international film market now gradually turns towards Asia from Hollywood, and China will definitely become the biggest market. Therefore, it is logical for him to be based in Hong Kong, a place with a rich Chinese culture and proximity to Mainland China. Moreover, at present, about 75% of box office audiences come from those aged between 15 and 35. "Therefore, to understand the future development of the movie industry, we need to learn from our young people. They are both our future audience and producers. Teaching at HKBU gives me an opportunity to meet the young generation in person and understand what they think. It is much more interesting than being the operator of a film production company!" Professor Man remarked. The Academy of Film at HKBU and the Beijing Film Academy are the only two Asian members of the International Association of Film and Television Schools. Professor Man believes that Hong Kong, where East meets West, is a perfect place for future film industry practitioners to study films from multiple perspectives.
Enriching students' experience at the Academy of Film
Professor Man has brought not only new visions but also concrete filming opportunities for students of the Academy. In 2014, he established the studio i, connecting with the University and industry to jointly invest in film production. Students are mentored by film professionals and provided with opportunities to participate in professional film-making projects. The Studio's first student project, lasting six years, has been completed and will be screened soon. Both the director and writer of the movie are students of the Academy of Film. Their story, which is about five young people living in Kunming witnessing the city's urbanisation, stood out from 259 submissions made by their counterparts. Through Professor Man's network, famous director Dr. Johnnie To was invited to be the film's executive producer, while an investment fund of 20 million yuan has been solicited to support the shooting. "This film is a joint investment between the University and our investor. As it is an entirely new mode of collaboration, the legal process involved is quite complicated. Nonetheless, it was an invaluable opportunity for our students. Even if they did not participate in the project directly, they were welcome to visit the movie set and watch filming on location," Professor Man said. The Studio's second project is now under way. This time another renowned director, Mr. Fruit Chan, will be one of the executive producers overseeing the project.
Another unprecedented achievement by Professor Man at HKBU is the establishment of the Dolby Atmos Sound Studio, the first of its kind in the Asian tertiary education sector. The Academy of Film has spent HK$6 million and three years to introduce this state-of-the-art sound technology, the goal being that this studio will bring our facilities on campus in line with the latest technological developments in cinemas. Professor Man explained that Hollywood movies are very demanding in terms of their sound quality. Unfortunately, film schools in Asia seldom invest in this area. "We are simply not training sound effects specialists. It is foreseen that sound effects will become increasingly important in future film production. We need to make good use of sound effects to tell our story. Sophisticated sound design will definitely elevate the quality of our creation," Professor Man elaborated.
Storytelling is the key
The entry of Asian movies into the Hollywood market is no longer a rare phenomenon. This year, a South Korean movie, Parasite, won a number of major awards at the Oscar 2020. Surprisingly, Professor Man is one of the promoters of the Korean Wave. In the early 1990s when Professor Man worked for the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, one of his duties was to manage the Corporation's satellite television channel in Taiwan. "Due to a limited budget, we could not afford to buy the broadcasting rights of Japanese dramas. That's why we went to look for South Korean TV series," Professor Man said. "I was one of the first who went to South Korea to purchase broadcasting rights of their dramas. At that time, Korea's TV production could not match the Japanese, but it was something new to the audience. Later, Korean drama series have become more and more popular in Asia including Singapore and Taiwan. It turned out that the price of the broadcasting rights of Korean drama series jumped tenfold in five years."
Hong Kong, once dubbed the "Hollywood of the East", produced more than 300 films each year in the 1980s. Now, its annual production is below 30. In Professor Man's view, Hong Kong film industry is still moving forward, but not fast enough. Competition is extremely intense in Asia – Apart from South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are all strong competitors. For example, the South Koreans are very clever, trying their best to study the Hollywood style and grasp its essence, i.e. their way of telling stories. They have absorbed successful elements from American programmes and at the same time created their own content. That is why their reality shows have become a big success in Asia, attracting numerous broadcasting companies in the region to purchase intellectual property rights from them.
Knowing that storytelling skills are the key to attracting the audience, Professor Man purposely increased the weight of such skills in the Academy of Film's curriculum. He developed a course known as "Creation of Non-script Reality Shows as well as Linear and Non-linear Storytelling", analysing the latest media content with students during lessons. He was once asked by a student, "Sir, from which book can I find the things you have taught in class?" Professor Man replied, "The book has not been yet published! The world is changing too fast and the materials have to be updated frequently. We are closely following the trend." Professor Man seldom mentions his past experience in the movie industry. "Talking about my good old days is just a waste of time! Instead, I would rather tell them about my mistakes so that they will not repeat them." His extraordinary way of teaching has attracted many students. "I once had a class for postgraduate students, which started at 8:30 in the morning. All 75 students had showed up 10 minutes before the class began. That's amazing! Since then I did not take attendance." Professor Man continued, "I arranged open-book exams for my students. They could even search for information on the internet. It was because all I want to test them is their perspectives when analysing things."
Connecting young film makers
In 2018, the Academy of Film held the first Global University Film Awards (GUFA). The event was highly successful, receiving more than 1,800 submissions from nearly 100 countries and regions. Being one of the initiators, Professor Man indicated that on the one hand, GUFA aims to provide an opportunity for students to make their own films. On the other hand, it is to connect future film makers worldwide. "Students from around the world who share the same love for movies can connect with one another. Their short videos may share the same theme, all relating to family, love and growth, but their ways of expression or perspectives can be very different given their various cultural backgrounds. By looking into the works of their counterparts, our students can have their horizons broadened." In the past few years, Professor Man has taken his students to film festivals overseas and to visit film schools in Poland, Denmark, Italy and the UK to understand the latest developments around the world, enabling them to have a better understanding of the global film industry. To catch up with the latest market developments, Professor Man is also eager to serve on advisory committees and to serve on juries at film festivals in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere in Asia.
Although it seems that the film industry in Hong Kong is past its prime, Professor Man remains optimistic about its prospects. "Many popular reality shows in the United States, and some Hollywood movies as well, are not created by Americans. They first appeared in small markets such as Israel, the Netherlands and Denmark. The Hong Kong market is small, but this does not mean that we cannot get a foothold in the world. Maybe we should stop comparing the present with the past. We should seek diversity and nurture more fresh blood." Professor Man said the skill of storytelling should be cultivated at an early age. He pointed out that school children in Copenhagen learn how to film short videos when they are just six years old. The technique of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) is also provided at school to arouse children's interest in using videos to tell their stories. "The skill of storytelling is truly useful, even if you do not pursue your career in the film industry," Professor Man said. Nurturing a new generation of media producers is never an easy task. Therefore, he particularly appreciated the vision of the Hung Hin Shiu Charitable Foundation. Its dedication to the establishment of the Dr. Hung Yeung Pong Wah Endowed Professorship in Film and Television will definitely help HKBU become a cradle for future film and television practitioners.
As the Dr. Hung Yeung Pong Wah Endowed Professor in Film and Television, Professor Man has an aspiration, "In the next decade, I would like to devote my best effort to teaching the younger generation to make use of the language of film in all industries." He always encourages his students to pay attention to documentaries, interviews and news. "The real life is more dramatic than movies. Look at all the news about the coronavirus outbreak! There are a lot of interesting materials." With the widespread use of technology such as AI and smartphones, and with media reform coming thick and fast, Professor Man keeps up with the trend closely and gets himself well prepared for changes evolving in this new era. This is certainly an attitude from which it is worth us learning.