Interview with Anders Geertsen, director of distribution at the Danish Film Institute and director of the commercial module at the European Digital Cinema Forum

Geertsen was one of the speakers at the session entitled “Tackling Digital Cinema Head On: Its Impact On The Landscape of European Exhibition and Distribution” at CEI on 26 June 2006.

Mr Geertsen, with regard to the process of digitalisation in Europe, you objected to the term "roll-out", pointing out that this term “conveys a notion someone will do it for us”. But what must the European cinema industry do to have – or at least share – control of the situation? How can the Europeans avoid the risk of finding their own films shut out from their own countries’ cinemas?
In fact, it is very simple. In Europe, we have to take care of ourselves. Our art, culture and industry. The notion of a digital “roll-out” seems to convey the image of someone else preparing everything, and doing it all for us. And then just applying the solution to Europe. “Rolling it out”. It is obvious that in the US, the Virtual Print Fee (VPF) model seems to work, and this is a model where the future savings in the distribution sector help finance the digital investment in the exhibition sector. The US majors and the US distributors agree to this, and they are now increasingly signing up to these VPF-deals, and thereby helping American cinemas get the digital projection equipment. My point is that the European producers and distributors should do the same thing. If the European production companies, and the European distributors do not help finance the digital equipment in our own cinemas, in Europe, well, then our American colleagues might do it… But, you know, with money comes control. And we, the Europeans, should not lose control of our own exhibition sector. Therefore we have to contribute, instead of just asking the US majors to foot the bill. It is simply not fair – or wise – to ask the Americans to pay for the necessary investment in our European cinemas.

You have suggested working on a European version of this Virtual Print Free system, which seems to promise such good results in the USA. What are the strong points of this system and the precautions necessary to make VPF efficient for the European industry, too?
The strong point of the system is obviously that the savings in the distribution sector help finance the heavy investment in the exhibition sector. In that respect, it is a “fair deal”. But it will only work if all distributors sign up to these VPF-agreements. Also our European and national distributors. Just imagine the mess if some films, and some distributors, agree to pay, while others are freewheeling… And then it is a long-term commitment, perhaps 5-7 years. To me, the key point is that Europe should start to negotiate a VPF-model, with a European flavor, and including the European distributors, instead of just waiting for the US majors to apply their solution.

In Europe there are many single-screen or small-sized cinemas. Faced with the prospect of heavy investments, not all of them seem to be able to face up to the shift to digital. What is your view of this?
We know that, in Europe, we have a high proportion of small, single-screen cinemas. These are often small, local, regional cinemas. Their cultural impact might be great, but their contribution to the overall box office is tiny. I have two concerns here:
First, when all the big cinemas and screens in Europe have gone digital, then the majors and the distributors are likely to stop supplying 35mm copies. Simply because the cost of supplying 35mm prints exceeds the box office from the small cinemas who have not gone digital. When this happens, the cinemas who have not gone digital will not get any 35mm prints anymore: in other words, they will be out of business.
So, and this is my second point, how can these small regional cinemas get the D-cinema projection equipment? Who will finance this new equipment for them? Again my point is this: these regional European cinemas are probably too small to have access to the VPF-financing, at least if they negotiate one by one. They should group together.

What, then, is your advice?
I think that smaller exhibitors in Europe must definitely go digital! If not, they will be out of business the day the studios and the distributors stop supplying 35mm prints. But they must make efforts to form consortiums to negotiate VPF-deals to avoid being shut out. Independent cinemas, small cinemas, with roots in their own territory, are important in the European cultural and social context. It would be a great loss, not only for the market, if they should disappear. But in order to hold out, new paths must be followed. First of all by gathering greater strength thanks to consortiums and networks. And, if I may add to that, I also believe there is a strong case for public support – and EU-support – to some of these small, regional European cinemas. If not, they are not likely to make the transition from analogue to digital.