Europe mulls digital cinema future

Barcelona conference looks at makeover

MADRID — Exhibitors, distributors and public-sector decision-makers will huddle in Barcelona from Friday to analyze one of Europe’s biggest movie challenges: the digital makeover of its indie cinema theaters.

Running March 5-6, the pioneering international conference, The Independent Exhibition Sector and the Challenges of Digitization, will take several bulls by the horn.

It’s also the biggest meet to date under the aegis of the E.U. and the Ministry Culture of Spain, which holds the E.U. presidency, focusing on Europe’s digital future from an exhibition POV.

The conference looks opportune.

“The challenge of digitizing Europe’s theaters is often completely underestimated,” said Henning Camre at Copenhagen’s European Think Tank, an associate conference co-ordinator.

“There are 6,000 single-screen theaters in Europe, and a further 1,200 two-screens,” Camre said.

Digitization must happen quickly: The danger is that small theaters will be shut out of prints when some distributors go totally digital, he added.

Rough ballpark installation costs of projectors and servers is around Euros50,000-Euros60,000 ($68,450-$82,140), sound systems around $13,700, said conference panelist David Hancock, head of film and cinema at London-based Screen Digest.

Some single-screen cinema theaters don’t have revenues that justify digitization, said Camre.

Also, Hancock added, “A fair number of theaters — rural cinemas, culture center cinemas — just don’t fit into a virtual print fee model,” where distributors and exhibitors cover many conversion costs working through digital facilitators such as Arts Alliance and Ymagis.

For Hancock, “22,000-23,000 screens in Europe are targeted by VPF models; another 8,000-10,000 screens don’t fit into a VPF structure.”

A digital makeover is a challenge for Spain, said Ignasi Guardans, director general of the ICAA Spanish film institute, part of Spain’s Ministry of Culture, which hosts the conference with the E.U. and the Media Program.

“We have plenty of ‘Cinema Paradisos’ in Spain, single-screens that show movies two or three months after release. We want to protect them. They’re part of the cultural reality of large villages or small cities,” Guardans argued.

“The big challenge in Spain is that most of what needs to be done needs to be implemented and in many cases approved by every single regional government,” Guardans added.

But digitization of indie cinemas — theaters not belonging to European cinema circuits — is “not a Spanish problem, it’s a European problem,” said Guardans.

Some 83% of Spanish screens are in multiplexes, said Hancock.

Spain, like the U.K., has a large number of multiplex screens, though the key factor easing conversion is the number of movies shown per screen, said Jean Mizrahi, founder of Paris-based Ymagis.

“All countries in Europe are going digital right now. We have a lot of demand in Spain and Germany,” Mizrahi noted.

Digitization challenges vary enormously in Europe: 80% of screens in some Eastern European countries are single-screens, said Camre.

But any solution to digitizing small screens looks to involve a combination of public intervention and private investment.

A mixed model looks to be emerging from France, where its CNC Film Board saw a proposal for its own VPF fund overturned by national competition authorities. It now looks set to subsidize the conversion of France’s 2,000-or-so single screens. Remaining Gallic D cinema makeover will be handled by digital cinema conversion providers, such as Ymagis.

“Everyone’s waiting for the French,” said Hancock.

“We’re all following very closely the legal reaction to the experiences in France, but all countries will need to find their own solutions,” said Guardans.

The large challenge that the French mixed-model poses is money: Governments are under fiscal pressure everywhere.

In one conference paper, Aviva Silver, head of unit of the E.U. Media Program will outline what the Program could bring to the table for theater digitization — and for whom.