Exhibs of one mind on digital pic push

Int'l groups share concerns over conversion

LAS VEGAS — It’s a small, digital world after all: As it turns out, international exhibs have the same anxieties over the looming industry conversion to digital exhibition as their U.S. counterparts.

“Who will pay for the transition (and) its tremendous costs?” wondered Guy Morlion, Belgian prexy of Europe’s Intl. Union of Cinema Owners. “People are still asking technical questions as well. So to say there’s a commercial model yet would seem premature,” he said.

“I think everybody knows that digital will be there in the future,” opined Adina Lebo, exec director of the Motion Picture Assn. of Canada. “But everybody is afraid there will be another VHS vs. Betamax type of fight if there’s not format standardization.”

The questions of money and technical matters dominated panel discussions of industry issues during ShoWest 2002’s international day Monday. About a quarter of the more than 2,600 registrants at the trade show this year are international attendees, reflecting a general convergence of industry interests among domestic and foreign exhibs.

Beyond borders

“Issues confronting exhibition used to be domestic,” said John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “Now the challenges that we all face are very much the same.”

Distribs are taking note of that convergence as well. Some 53% of worldwide box office last year came from foreign territories, noted Tom Borys, prexy of B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI.

Mitsuhiko Okura, chairman of the Japan Assn. of Theater Owners, detailed a government program offering low-interest loans to Japanese exhibs for converting some of that country’s 2,600 movie screens to digital projection.

“I think I need to lobby our Small Business Administration to get the same kind of loans as you have in Japan,” Fithian observed.

What is not needed, the NATO boss added, is undue influence from wannabe financiers of the digital conversion, whom he knocked as mere “third parties” in the matter. “Exhibitors and distributors will decide the business questions of this issue as it affects our industry,” Fithian stressed.

His remarks were an apparent rap at efforts by companies such as Technicolor and Boeing to float digital-cinema financing plans. Separately, a consortium of major-studio distribs has been mulling various ways to help finance the digital rollout; other plans are expected to surface eventually.

Localized concerns

Meanwhile, despite the many similarities among global exhibition issues, panel discussions also spotlighted some territorial distinctions.

For instance, indigenous film production remains strong in France and French-speaking Canada, but it is still of negligible market impact in Belgium and elsewhere. And exhibs in most countries employ voluntary systems of content ratings, but in Canada individual provinces enforce different government ratings guidelines.

Day-and-date film releasing in foreign territories is sometimes criticized by international execs for its homogenous approach to diverse local marketing challenges. But an Estonian exhib said he’s looking forward to the upcoming day-and-date rollout of Sony’s highly anticipated “Spider-Man.”

“It’s a good thing for your marketing to be able to tell people they’re among the first people in the world to see a film,” Forum Cinemas’ Timo Diener said.

Reining in the rush

International consensus also is elusive on ticket-pricing policies and other issues. But Fithian seemed to reflect a prevailing worldwide attitude when he summarized NATO’s stance on digital cinema. “What we must avoid is an unplanned stampede,” he said. “It’s not that we’re out to block digital cinema — we just want to get it right.”

Also Monday, Hoyts Cinemas chief Paul Johnson accepted accolades for his selection as international exhibitor of the year.

But “Amelie” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who Saturday copped a Cesar award for helming the French-lingo laffer, could not be on hand to receive ShoWest’s international achievement in filmmaking award.

ShoWest continues through Thursday. A keynote address by Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti highlights Tuesday sessions.

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