Exhibs take stand at Cinema Expo on industry issues

Cinema Expo kicked off Monday, and exhibs and distribs immediately took off the gloves to debate the industry’s thornier issues, including who will foot the digital bill in Europe.

Exhibs — who in the past have seen their problems as particular to their own territories — also made a unified stand against closing the window between a pic’s theatrical and DVD release, which they categorically view as a threat.

Such sticky topics came to the fore early in the Expo’s 15th edition, as the latter half of the day was set aside for sunnier fare: the glitzy product reels of DreamWorks Animation and UIP.

But before any fanfare, Euro exhibs implored studios to help pay for the transition to digital cinema on the continent; studios have not yet embraced such a strategy in Europe as strongly as they have Stateside, where a raft of third parties has come in to deliver digital pics to theaters.

Various speakers Monday took sides and laid the groundwork for behind-the-scenes talks that will unfold here this week.

“We are in this exhibition-distribution marriage, and apparently divorce is not an option,” quipped Warner Bros. exec VP of European distribution Monique Esclavissat.

National Assn. of Theater Owners topper John Fithian delivered a keynote address in which he put the accent on the need to come to grips with digitalization.

“Last year, let’s face it, the movies were so-so,” Fithian said, adding that the industry must not rest on its laurels, and that the issue of making d-cinema a reality in North America and Europe must come to the fore.

“I now believe that in the U.S. and in Europe, digital cinema is better than film. But there’s that little tiny issue of who will pay.”

Exhibs called on the studios to follow a model under which the distributors would pay so-called virtual print fees — money that the studios and other distribs would fork over to exhibs for each film they released digitally, for a certain number of years, to help reimburse them for the installation of digital equipment in cinemas.

“There is a complex mix in Europe,” Fithian said. “But it is still simple math. The studios should pay (VPFs) over time. When that ends, the studios save forever (on print costs), and we will have our digital cinemas.”

Exhibs hammered home the point that for such fees to work, they need agreements from studios to pay the fees and to stick with the plans over time.

“This will only work if all distributors are part of (VPFs),” said Anders Geertsen, head of distribution for the Danish Film Institute and a member of the European Digital Cinema Forum. “It must be a consortium — a global agreement that’s long-term and lasts for maybe five, six, 10 years,” he added.

“The real cost savings will only kick in when distributors and the majors can stop supplying 35mm prints and have one form only.”

Geertsen said Europe’s 26,000 screens’ “bread and butter” is Hollywood films, which are being released more frequently in digital format.

He added that with Hollywood studios moving into digital distribution, European exhibs will have to get in the game, or risk becoming unable to screen the biz’s hottest titles.

Last year Disney, the d-cinema leader, offered 41% of its output digitally. Fox followed with 39% and Warners with 37%.

But Geertsen also was adamant that Europe not look for Hollywood to swoop in and save digital cinema, as this would result in a loss of control for Europeans in the film business.

“The biggest challenge is to get European distributors, exhibitors and producers on board. Everyone must contribute,” said Geertsen. “Europeans must pay their entrance fee to the digital market. It makes no sense for the U.S. distributors to foot the bill alone.”

Without a comprehensive deal in place, warned Geertsen, the transition to digital could kill off up to a third of theaters in Europe.

For many single-screen sites, digital conversion just isn’t economical.

Piracy was another issue that came to the fore Monday, and once again, U.S. heavy-hitters were on hand to share their Stateside experiences. Among them was Rich Taylor, the MPAA’s senior VP of external affairs and education.

Targeting male teens and college kids as the prime pirates, the MPAA and various international orgs are trying to make a priority of campaigns that target youth via comicbooks and school outreach programs.

Deciding “piracy” sounds too cool, the industry worldwide is changing the term to “movie theft” to play up its illegality and play down any cachet.

MPAA head Dan Glickman will address the attendees today, while Fox will screen two of its upcoming titles: “A Very Good Year” and “Borat.”

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