U.K. indies wake up to benefits of digital dawn

Biz upbeat about rollout

On Oct. 5, London’s Curzon Soho screened a matinee of Danish political thriller “King’s Game” from a digital print. Although a seemingly unremarkable event, it was the first screening in the U.K. Film Council’s groundbreaking Digital Screen Network project, which hopes to boost admissions for specialized pics 40% by 2011.

The rollout of the DSN is in full swing. Landmark locations like the Curzon Soho and Manchester’s Cornerhouse have already received their digital makeover and the first 50 screens are skedded to be installed by February. The 240-screen network is on track to be fully operational by spring 2007.

Early beneficiaries are generally delighted. “We are knocked out by it. Although we are having some difficulties getting films, the quality of the digital image of our current offering, ‘Saraband,’ is simply incredible,” reports Derek Hook, topper at Zeffirellis cinema in Ambleside, Cumbria.

Distribs are equally upbeat. “I don’t see any disadvantages” says Zygi Kamasa, Redbus Film Distribution prexy and “Good Night, and Good Luck” co-producer.

To Kamasa, the DSN promises an age of greater flexibility: “With digital prints the physical difficulties of changing a film midway through its run are gone. Potentially, regional cinemas could begin showing a different film every night, creating their own mini film festivals.”

While Kamasa acknowledges that this increased flexibility is a threat to distribs that will no longer be guaranteed at least a week, he embraces the opportunities. He says the growth of digital distribution will make the rollout of indie pics easier. “For niche films such as our Israeli film ‘Walk on Water,’ it will be easier for distributors to find theatrical homes. It can be strategically played on, say, just Tuesdays and Wednesdays and built up gradually.”

Brit indie filmmakers are pumped by the potential. Jan Dunn, nominated for a British Independent Film Award for her HD-shot debut feature, “Gypo,” is a big proponent of digital cinema. But she is quick to point out that 35mm is far from dead, “the DSN can only help the exhibition of film in the long term. But I’ve learned from the experience of ‘Gypo’ that I will still have to go to (negative) and at least a couple of 35mm prints in order to not be excluded from the major festivals.”

While most bizzers are excited by the potential of the DSN to reduce print costs and therefore facilitate wider and more varied releases, some have reservations.

One bone of contention is the Film Council’s definition of “specialized” pics. Org says it includes films made by indie producers; shot on a relatively low budget; with a focus that is driven more by script and character than effect and event; and which appeal to a narrower audience than Hollywood pics.

This broad definition worries smaller distribs like Dogwoof Pictures, which is concerned that studio pics will dominate the DSN slots. “If I were a multiplex and had the DSN choice to run a Sony Pictures English-language independent film or a foreign-language film, guess which one I’d go for?” questions Dogwoof director Anna Godas, adding that “the fact that films like ‘Vera Drake’ or ‘Broken Flowers’ are considered specialized films makes it very hard for our world cinema films to ever make it in those nonarthouse cinemas that have committed to show specialized films through DSN.”

The Film Council’s Pete Buckingham maintains that the definition is realistic. “‘Specialized’ means different things to different people. A single-screen cinema in the Lake District has a different conception of specialized to a London arthouse venue well-versed in screening alternative fare.”

He is happy to report that “there have been no horrible logistical issues that we had not anticipated.” But he knows that only time will tell whether the improved access will equate to dramatically increased admissions. But if industry buzz is anything to go by, it will make the grade.

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