Early o’seas adopters play digital waiting game

Special digital summit planned in Cannes' harbor

As the film industry heads to Cannes this month, international bizzers will be taking an even closer look at digital cinema, now that it’s right in front of everyone.

Not only should there be a fair amount of talk directed toward the subject in dealmaking sessions at the Cannes Market, but there’s even a special digital summit planned to take place on a boat moored in Cannes’ harbor, where industryites will muse over the implications of the most expensive transition in the history of theatrical exhibition and distribution.

For some time now, exhibitors outside of North America have had a breezy head start investigating and experimenting as they waited for Hollywood to make up its mind on digital specifications.

“International markets for the last several years actually led North American deployments,” says Doug Darrow, Texas Instruments’ brand and marketing manager in charge of the DLP Cinema chip that is at the center of the 2K digital picture palace revolution.

“Some markets, or more specifically some exhibitors, are rather aggressive,” confirms Yoko Yamazaki, senior manager of Sony Corp.’s digital cinema business department.

So, when U.S. studio consortium Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) set its specifications in July, theater operators, equipment manufacturers and system integrators everywhere were quick to embrace it.

Of course, the specs raised a number of issues, including system compatibility; availability of digital film files; concerns about security, multiple language versions and ratings; as well as financing woes. But these all seem surmountable now that a global standard has been adopted.

Without a “single nonproprietary standard for digital projection systems and content security,” as Julian Levin, exec VP digital exhibition and nontheatrical sales and distribution at Fox, has long been stressing, there would be no worldwide access in line with the faithful services that 35-mm provided.

Despite the globally agreed-upon goal, which Levin says is “improved presentation quality that will stand the test of time,” digital film titles have not been as abundant as celluloid.

“We depend on distribution companies to supply films in digital format,” insists Wolfram Weber of Germany’s CineCitta superplex in Nuremberg.

Says Arcadia multiplex marketing exec Laura Fumagalli, “Lacking a constant flow of digital releases” has easily been the biggest challenge for the Italian site near Milan, which launched its first installation back in 2001. With the exception of Roberto Benigni’s “Pinocchio,” she says, all titles shown so far were encoded and packaged in California — a costly process that prohibits more titles from crossing the Atlantic.

In turn, security concerns as

well as a lack of infrastructure abroad have kept U.S. studios from releasing more digital titles.

Warner Bros.’ international distribution prexy Veronica Kwan-Rubinek underlines that building digital screens “remains an expensive proposition.”

The Stateside financing and integration of digital theaters — through virtual print fees, equipment maintenance and theater service agreements — seems a likely overseas scenario as well. European integrators such as XDC Intl. and other third-party financiers are proposing lease-based models. And just about everybody is counting on institutional support.

In Norway, for instance, trade body Film&Kino is backing two beta installations of digital equipment. The 10-screen Kristiansand D-Kino is working with U.K. deployment agent Arts Alliance Media, and another 15 screens in the Nordic project are being deployed in conjunction with pan-European advertiser Unique Digital.

“We are trying to do what National CineMedia is doing in the U.S.,” explains Unique Digital’s business development director, Patrick von Sychowski, “to help our exhibitor partners with the transition.”

With its entire $20 million budget coming from public funding, the U.K. Film Council’s 240-screen digital network represents a “fundamentally different model to the one currently being rolled out in the States,” says Steve Perrin, the Film Council’s deputy head of exhibition and distribution. He says the goals are more about culture, access and inclusion.

Smaller and independent exhibs fear that with a number of top theaters grossing the bulk of the box office, d-cinema won’t make economic sense to financiers in all situations.

“It is very much a goal of no digital cinema left behind,” von Sychowski explains.