Country's top cinema chains have now all converted

PARIS — Gaul’s top cinema circuits have now all joined the 3D cause.

One of Europe’s major exhibitors, UGC, has announced a pact with Paris-based digital cinema provider Ymagis for digital conversion of all its 605 screens: 373 in France, 88 in Spain, 80 in Belgium, 64 in Italy.

Now that France has the bulk of Europe’s 3D screens, will it also lead the charge in 3D pic production? It appears it’s already happening.

Euro major StudioCanal recently announced a follow-up to 3D turtle tale “Sammy’s Adventures” with Ben Stassen’s NWave. And just after Berlin wrapped, producers Aton Soumache and Dimitri Rassam revealed a 3D feature toon version of “The Little Prince.”

Their shingle, Onyx Films, also has 3D eco-adventure fantasy “Mune,” co-produced with Studio 37, going into production this month.

The arrival of “Avatar” marked a tipping point for the remaining exhibs who were resistant to digital conversion.

James Cameron’s gamechanger has taken in $TK million in Gaul, with 70% from just 400 3D screens out of France’s total 5,440 screens.

“The success of ‘Avatar’ has demonstrated the big appetite of audiences for quality 3D entertainment,” said UGC’s head of exhibition, Jean-Marie Dura.

“With spectacular films like ‘Shrek,’ ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Alice’ all coming up in 3D, we have no doubt that audiences will follow.”

Other top circuits are farther ahead.

A European pioneer, mid-sized city operator CGR Cinemas began installing 3D screens starting in early 2008. Gaul’s top arthouse chain, MK2, signed with Ymagis last September to digitize 58 screens in 2010. Gaul’s biggest circuit, Pathe/Gaumont combo EuroPalaces, has been steadily digitizing screens, working with SmartJog on digital print delivery.

Once a 3D laggard, France boasted 959 digital screens by the end of 2009, of which 710 were 3D, making it Europe’s digital cinema leader, according to David Hancock, Screen Digest head of film and cinema.

He estimates Gaul will have 1,437 digital screens by year-end 2010, 905 in 3D.

“France has reached a healthy momentum. For French 3D conversion, it’s the end of the battle,” said Hancock.

“Compared to other countries, France’s local exhibitors are in a better financial situation. Most of them can afford the share of conversion costs we ask them to pay,” said Jean Mizrahi, Ymagis founder.

Mizrahi expects to sign up “easily 200 to 300″ more screens in the next four to five months.

French film board the Centre National du Cinema (CNC) will subsidize conversion of France’s near 2,000 single screen cinemas.

Deployment facilitators like Ymagis have yet to ink with indie Gallic distributors on long-term virtual print fee deals, where distributors pay digital conversion companies part of their savings from no longer making physical 35mm prints.

Longer-term contracts may well come in time, however.

“Distributors don’t have to think about print fee deals until the screens they use on a regular basis go digital. As soon as big exhibitors go digital, there’s a rationale for all but very small distributors to follow,” said Hancock.

Mizrahi said Ymagis expects to sign shortly longer-term virtual print fee deals with bigger local distributors.

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