India pix face digital divide

Most screens don't meet Hollywood standards

MUMBAI — While nearly two-thirds of all movie screens in the U.S. and more than half in Europe and in India have converted to digital, the subcontinent’s sheer size, diversity and nonstandardized technologies have made the conversion process here more complex than in some Western territories.

It’s not that India’s bizzers aren’t enthusiastic about digital conversion, it’s that they face, among other things, a dual digital standard driven by cost.

It costs approximately $80,000 to convert a theater to d-cinema (e-cinema conversion runs just $20,000), and the DCI-compliant projectors are more expensive to operate and maintain.

“Cost is a definite barrier in the growth of d-cinema,” says Anil Arjun, chief exec of Reliance MediaWorks, which operates Big Cinemas, India’s leading exhibitor. “Digital projectors use twice as much energy and require larger lamps for projection that burn out quicker.”

Of Big’s 260 screens, 117 are digital. Of these, just 47 are DCI-compliant. That’s in part a reflection of the success of Bollywood. Hollywood’s market share of India’s box office is only 10%. Much of the rest of the market is devoted to local product. And screens that show mostly Bollywood films can get by without projectors that conform to the pricier Hollywood standards.

Exhibitor Cinemax, which has 58 DCI-compliant screens, touts a dual strategy. “On all new projects, we are 100% DCI-complaint,” says Sunil Punjabi, the chain’s CEO. “On the existing Cinemax locations, we have converted some of the screens to DCI.”

Many cinemas, including the vast majority of single screens, are using lower-standard, e-cinema projection, which has long been prominent in India. Some, however, can’t afford even that.

Bollywood distributor Rajesh Thadani feels that for single screens, box office receipts don’t justify the cost of installing any digital system, much less DCI. Nonetheless, he estimates that these theaters will be forced to go digital or close down in the near future, due to the decreasing availability of film prints.

But as the virtual print fee developed in the U.S. as a way for exhibs and distribs to jointly fund the adoption of digital, a pair of Indian companies are affording smaller exhibs a third option.

India’s UFO Moviez and Real Image Media, market leaders in the digital conversion space, will install either e-cinema or DCI-compliant d-cinema in return for a 15%-25% share of in-cinema advertisement revenues, plus a monthly charge of between $250 and $350 that covers the maintenance and upkeep of the equipment.

“Single screens don’t have the wherewithal to sell advertising. So we do it for them as part of the package,” says UFO chief exec Rajesh Mishra.

It’s a particularly apt pricing strategy, since one of the advantages of digital over film projectors is greater programming flexibility, allowing operators to quickly swap out one form of content for another, including cinema advertising.

UFO and Real Image also charge distributors a virtual print fee for e-cinema on a per-show basis. For E-cinema systems, the cost is $7 per show in the first week, $6 the second week and nothing after that. For d-cinema-equipped theaters, the initial week’s charge is $10.

Digital also gives cinemas the flexibility to run alternate programming. UFO screens transmit live Indian Premier League cricket matches; Cinemax shows the Cricket World Cup; and Big presents other sports and opera. “We believe alternate programming is the future,” Punjabi says.

Ultimately, it seems inevitable that India will go completely digital, but it will be a deliberate process, slowed in part, ironically, by one of the very problems it will solve.

“One hundred percent digital will take time for two reasons,” Arjun says. “First, the multiple operating standards (d-cinema and e-cinema) need to be harmonized and made consistent. Second, the country is unique for its diversity, with eight mainstream languages.”

So even though digital conversion will make it easier to deliver movies in the country’s multiple languages, the sheer number and diversity of those films will slow down the decision-making process.

“Each year, more than 400 films have a broad audience viewership,” Arjun says. “So it’s really a customized solution for every multiplex and its neighborhood.”

What: Most digital movie screens in India don’t meet Hollywood standards.

The takeaway: Cost is a factor, but Bollywood success and ethnic diversity play a part, even as solutions exist to rent digital equipment to those without.