Digitization's the big topic at Euro confab

Europe is prepping for a 3D flood, with finding enough screens for Hollywood blockbusters as well as alternative content on exhibitors’ minds as Cinema Expo gets under way in Amsterdam today.

Running through Thursday, the Euro confab — basically the equivalent of ShowEast and ShoWest in the U.S. — is an opportunity for the fast-changing exhibition market across Europe to evaluate the slew of recent cinema digitization deals, as well as consider opportunities for alternative content — from sporting events to live concerts and more.

Europe is experiencing record growth in digital cinema. The number of digital screens tripled from 2008 to 2009 to nearly 4,700 across Europe, most of those 3D-enabled, and the rapid growth shows no signs of slowing.

Premium prices for 3D screenings boosted gross box office revenue in the European Union by 12% to a record high of more than $8 billion in 2009 and this year’s stereoscopic hits like “Clash of the Titans,” “Alice in Wonderland” and the upcoming “Despicable Me” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I” are sure to continue the trend.

Yet exhibs are quick to point out that 3D is not the be-all and end-all for the industry.

“3D will always remain something special and it will continue to attract audiences, if the quality of the films remains high. But 3D films won’t replace 2D films,” said Oliver Fock, managing director of leading German exhib group CineStar, which has 49 digital screens in its 76 theater complexes around the country.

CineStar is planning to install 3D screens in a 50 more locations, again partnering with RealD on the upgrades, but Fock said there are no plans for a complete digitization of all CineStar screens.

While the German government is working on a plan to help the domestic exhib sector with the costs of digital overhauls, a number of digital service companies have sought direct aid from banks, which appear ready and willing to provide much needed loans to help set up Virtual Print Fee co-financing schemes:

In one landmark deal, pan-European service company XDC secured a E100 million ($123 million) credit line to finance digital conversions in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“With this loan we will now in practical terms be able to finance more than 2,000 screens across Europe,” said XDC CEO Serge Plasch.

Earlier this year Kieft & Kieft + Partner became the first Teutonic exhib to sign a VPF deal — still a novel idea in Germany — with XDC and Film Ton Technik (FTT) for the digitization of 150 screens in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

France’s Ymagis secured a similar credit deal to bankroll its digital upgrade agreement with French cinema operator UGC for 588 screens in France, Belgium, Span and Italy.

In June, Utopia Group also tapped Ymagis to convert all of its cinemas (13 sites and 90 screens) in Luxembourg, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to digital by 2011.

Moreover, digital cinema company Arts Alliance Media just inked a $44.2 million deal with Cineworld Group to convert its 790-screen circuit in the U.K. and Ireland and it’s set to announce more partnerships soon.

Eager to tap into Europe’s digitization boom, Los Angeles-based MasterImage 3D has just opened an office at Pinewood Studios near London seeking a foothold on the continent.

The upgrades will allow more cinemas to attract auds with both high-profile 3D films and an increasingly broader selection of non-film programming, even in 3D.

Last year British pop star Robbie Williams set a Guinness World Record for the most simultaneous cinematic screenings of a live concert, which was broadcast live to more than 250 cinema screens across 23 countries.

This year, thrash metal bands Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax are bringing their European tour to the global stage via satellite to 800 movie theaters around the world in a special high definition cinematic event.

The Tuesday concert in Sofia, Bulgaria, will be broadcast in the U.S. in more than 450 theaters as well as throughout Europe, Canada and Latin America.

In Germany and Austria, meanwhile, the number of cinemas that carry live broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera has increased tenfold in the past three years to more than 50.

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