29 August, 2008

Digital Cinema and the Future of Independent Circuits: the US Solution

Of the little under six thousand screens that were equipped with digital projectors using DLP Cinema or, in very few cases, Sony 4K technology by the end of 2007, the vast majority is to be found in North America. From representing around 30% of the world’s offer of digital cinema, this area has grown in only two years to represent almost 80%.

Despite considerable growth rates and although it is the world’s second largest market, Europe is still some way behind, particularly when we consider that the total number of screens in the Old Continent amounts to over three quarters of America’s whilst, where digital is concerned, the ratio falls to one fifth.

To explain North America’s leap forward, reference is always made to the publication of the DCI specs in 2005 and the adoption of a business model that aims to finance the transition, the so-called VPF, particularly suitable for a market characterized by the limited number of players. Not only do the 6 studios account for around 90% of distribution in the United States, but the main exhibition companies control numbers of screens that are inconceivable for Europe: Regal, for example, which is the number one exhibitor, counts as many as 6,763 theatres out of the country’s total of approximately 39,000.

In a decidedly more fragmented context, such as that of Europe, where alongside the studios that control an average 70% of the market there are hundreds of distribution companies and a range of exhibition companies, the VPF model not only meets with practical difficulties of application but can certainly not be considered the universal solution. From several sides – exhibitors with less negotiating power but also public institutions – voices of concern are being raised as to the “victims” that would fall to VPF. “Federating” or “integrating” the screens considered less attractive by the studios has, for example, become the objective of an initiative such as the Norwegian one by Film & Kino, described in issue no. 38.

However, it is significant that the specific demands of the small to medium-sized exhibition companies have come to light in the United States, too. Here, NATO, the exhibitors’ association, has created CBG, a buyers’ group to which 600 US and Canadian companies belong, for a total of eight thousand screens, which aims to make the transition to digital possible even in chains which would not be able to benefit from the VPF model on their own. Acting as “integrator” after a selection process which also saw participation by Technicolor, Kodak and Digeserv, will be Access IT, which will not only install the equipment – corresponding to DCI specs – but will also provide the necessary training and assistance to guarantee a smooth transition from 35mm to digital. Wayne Anderson, Managing Director of CBG declares: “Our mission is historic: ensure that independent cinemas survive and thrive in the digital age.”

Elisabetta Brunella

Italian Distributors and Exhibitors Discuss Digital

On 8 July Anec - the association of the cinema exhibitors in Italy – organized a Professional Day in Rome devoted entirely to digital cinema and 3D. A formula which drew a large number of participants, from the areas of both exhibition and distribution. We talk about this to Paolo Protti, President of ANEC, starting out by asking him his opinion of how it went.

After a meeting restricted in numbers, this is the first time that exhibitors and distributors have met in a public context, to talk about the digital transition. The high point of the Day was certainly when we heard four distributors, representing both the Majors and Italian companies, explain their approach to digital. But what I want to emphasize is the importance of the intense dialogue, in which the key figures were not only the speakers themselves but the many exhibitors and distributors seated in the audience. The spirit of the Day was marked by a professional attitude and the sincere intention to understand how to collaborate and take steps forward together.

What messages emerged from the world of distribution?

First of all, the willingness to contribute to the cost of updating the theatres technologically, recognizing the need to find a new balance in a situation that sees the savings on the side of distribution and the costs on that of exhibition.

The ways this objective will be reached still have to be defined: the representatives of the majors made no mystery of their preference for the VPF model, which implies a good deal of involvement by the so-called “integrators”, even though they have stated that they are open to contemplating agreements with other interlocutors, for example joint purchasing groups, still taking VPF as their reference point. From 01 and Filmauro came signs of an opening towards identifying an “Italian way” to the digital transition.

Clearly, the next step will have to be the establishment of a technical model.

The various interventions by representatives from the world of exhibition revealed both a positive attitude as well as reserves, linked mainly to the fear that it might be impossible to access the digital technology, thus excluding theatres that are more outlying or less competitive commercially. What is the Association’s position on this situation?

The Association is clearly committed to making sure that the digital transition takes place as evenly as possible, even though it is impossible to ignore market dynamics. We must be aware – and the distributors repeated this several times – that the dream of making all films available on all screens will not come true thanks to digitalization. The business negotiations between distribution and exhibition will continue as usual: this is another reason why the distributors stated more than once that the mechanism of sharing costs for equipping theatres will remain quite separate from the negotiation of the rental fee. We on our part take a favourable view of those initiatives – such as the one set out in the letter of intent signed by 19 exhibitors for a total of 340 screens and probably destined to attract new partners – which concentrate on aggregation and synergy. Without doubt the digital shift is a serious matter if large numbers are concerned.

Elisabetta Brunella