Digital starts to make good on promises of riches

BRUSSELS — As installation of digital screens picks up in Europe, exhibitors are exploring options for showing “alternative content” alongside new feature films. Begun by many to fill the gap between 3-D releases, some like the results so much that alternative content has become a significant part of their digital business case.

Alternative content ranges from soccer and Formula One racing to live arts such as theater, opera and rock concerts. TV series get gala cinema openings thanks to digital screens, and interactivity has been tested with bigscreen console gaming.

Exhibitors have been tentative in crowded markets. “Our main goal is to show feature films, and there are a lot of films to show,” says Thomas Runfors, spokesman for leading Swedish chain SF Bio, which has just started screening opera from Milan. “Hopefully it will be a success, but for our business it is not so important.”

Odeon in the U.K. is committed, but cautious about alternative content. “We anticipate the revenue it brings in will be relatively small compared to 3-D but still significant,” says Drew Kaza, director of digital development.

The market leader has done well with live arts and music, its best to date being tour movie “Iron Maiden — Flight 666,” which played in 39 locations with many screens at capacity.

Experimentation has been more intense for Kinepolis, an early investor in digital. The critical mass it has engendered in Belgium has helped develop a coherent, countrywide set of offerings. “However, carefully thought-out initiatives in France and Spain are as successful,” says group spokeswoman Myriam Dassonville. Gaul recently lapped up a relay of the Cannes opening ceremony.

While live arts programming emphasizes quality, some exhibitors are winning with less visual polish. UCI Kinowelt in Germany has brought in horror fans with DVD-quality midnight screenings of films that missed theatrical release, such as “Diary of the Dead,” “The Broken” and “Wicked Lake.”

And in Prague, Palace Cinemas’ top show for a week was a nightly DVD-quality screening of Led Zeppelin in concert. “If you reach the audience, it’s really great,” Palace topper V.J Maury says.

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