By Elisabetta Brunella, Secretary General of MEDIA Salles

The only one in the MEDIA Programme’s offer of training to deal with the topic of digital cinema from the theatres’ point of view, the MEDIA Salles course took place for the fourth time this year from 28 March to 1st April. Once again hosted by Barco at their Kuurne quarters in Belgium and supported by the Italian Government, “DigiTraining Plus: New Technologies for European Cinemas” provided the necessary information and tools of analysis for weighing up and facing an innovation which, as summed up by one of the participants, Matthieu Bakolas, of the Ciné Le Parc in Charleroi, “proclaims a revolution whose effects will have a strong influence on all the professions linked to the cinema, from authors to exhibitors”. It is in this perspective that the theatre managers’ main interest shifts: since 2004, when the course was launched, up to the present, the emphasis has gradually moved from the technical aspects (How does digital projection work? What is the quality of vision like?) to questions about the mode of transition. “Business models”, the impact on relationships within the chain of the cinema life cycle, the offer of products, both in the traditional sector of films and in that of new content, were thus the main topics of the 2007 edition.

To an even greater extent than in past years, the course was largely based on the presentation of practical experiences. Today, partly due to a significant increase in the number of digital projectors over the past year-and-a-half, different approaches can be evaluated. At the end of 2006 the world’s digital screens touched on 2,866, with an average increase over the year of 382% and a peak of 1,031% in North America, a territory that counts two thirds of the world’s digital screens. But Europe, too, with 531 projectors using DLP CinemaTM technology, shows an interesting profile: a cross-section was to be seen on the visits to the complexes in Tournai and Bruges, managed respectively by Imagix and Kinepolis, and the accounts contributed by companies such as Odeon and Finnkino. For the latter company, the leader on the Finnish market, the brand new installation of a digital projector in the prestigious Tennispalatsi in Helsinki represents the first step – taken in harmony with the Finnish Film Foundation and supported by it – to try out the technology. In the case of the Odeon, explained by Drew Kaza and Gerald Buckle, respectively Director and Manager of Digital Development, the “100% digital” option adopted in the United Kingdom for two venues with nine screens each, goes beyond the objective of acquiring knowledge and know-how expendable when the digital transition is a widespread phenomenon. The strategy aims, in fact, to create a brand image for digital cinema, exploiting on the one hand the prestige of the Odeon (a company in operation in the United Kingdom since the ’40s) and on the other the innovative nature of this type of projection. This includes the invention of a new name for the digital cinemas in the Chain (“Digiplex”) and a message to customers that leaves no doubt as to the reality of the new technological experience: “digital cinema is here”. Kinepolis – European pioneer in the adoption of digital – is to be seen in a similar perspective, having commenced a new phase with the announcement of the imminent installation of a digital projector on all of its Belgian screens. The objective: to ensure that the new technology is used to present the film for the duration of its commercial life. Something that presupposes a high degree of confidence in the availability of titles distributed in digital format. To remain in the field of content, the course offered a broad panorama ranging from the viewing of 300 at the Tournai Imagix, to an anthology of European productions offered by XDC on the screen of the Bruges Kinepolis. These screenings were joined by the presentation of the catalogue by Park Circus, a young UK distribution company specialised in new digital editions of “evergreens”, starting out from Casablanca, and of the “3-D” sector, consisting in an advance screening of the production Fly me to the moon and the talk by Matt Cowan of Real D, who showed how this type of product, which promises an absolutely original viewing experience and is not affected by competition from home-entertainment, represents a catalyst for the spread of digital projection. Up to the present there are 700 screens worldwide equipped with digital projectors for “3-D”.
Digital cinema as an innovation that must not penalise any exhibitors: this demand, expressed by speakers such as Ad Weststrate, President of Unic, and Michael Thomas, representing AG Kino – Cicae, was addressed by the talks dealing more specifically with business models. As well as the concept that seems to be most widely accepted in North America – the so-called Virtual Print Fee – other models were presented, aiming to restore the balance in a situation that sees the investment needed for digital transition being borne mainly by the exhibitors and the long-term economic advantages directed mainly towards distribution.
Amongst these is the “Pay per Play Fee”, which could be adapted most successfully to the peculiarities of the European market, characterised by a high number of companies, including some very small ones. Or the involvement of producers and distributors in order to contribute to the success – in a short space of time – of the digital transition. Or, again, the intervention of the so-called “integrator”, i.e. the company that offers itself as an “intermediary” in the relations between exhibitor, distributor and supplier of technology, assuming, amongst others, the task of negotiating with the distributors, so that part of the money saved thanks to the elimination of 35mm prints be paid into a “savings fund” destined to finance the purchase of equipment. The aim – of crucial importance on a market such as that of Europe, featuring markets with strong national peculiarities and the presence of many small or medium-sized businesses – is to find solutions to match the different situations.
“Because – as Jens Rykær, President of MEDIA Salles, commented – theatres must neither submit passively to the digital transition, nor feel as though they are being besieged by the new technologies. It is the latter that should be at the service of the cinema. It is thus impossible for there to be a single business model, valid for all situations. And it is the exhibitor who must be able to choose”.

La versione italiana di questo articolo è stata pubblicata nel “Giornale dello Spettacolo” n. 14, del 25 maggio 2007.
The English version has been published in the “European Cinema Journal” n. 02/07.