by Laura Carniel

The way in which movie theatres communicate their offer to the public is now widely recognized as being a vital element for their competitive success and exhibitors pay increasing attention to the image the public has of their cinema. “Communication” is thus becoming one of the key words in the world of digital cinema. Communicating digital screening is not just about making known a technological innovation but also about offering a whole new viewing experience. Exhibitors are becoming increasingly aware that technology is not an end in itself and on its own is insufficient to create a competitive edge. What the public is told and, above all, how it is told is therefore becoming of fundamental importance: it is not enough to have a good product and new technology; you must know how to communicate this in a distinct and appealing way.
What are the mechanisms to concentrate on? The means of cinematographic promotion remain more or less the same, whilst what changes is the message: less focus on films and the cinema’s promotional offers and more on technological innovation and the quality of the digital image. And when it comes to digital screening it is precisely the quality that becomes the hub around which the exhibitor’s work rotates: digital technology is taken on board because it offers better quality of projection, becoming a “pledge of quality” to the public and the vehicle of a unique experience in theatrical viewing.

The Italian scenario
This is the main result to emerge from the first research carried out in Italy on the digitalization of movie theatres. Arising out of collaboration with the MEDIA Salles association, the research, which covers the whole country, had a dual objective. From the exhibitors’ point of view, to examine the impact of digital technology on the distinguishing features of the offer, on the company’s main business results and on the modes and tools used in the field of promotion. From the spectators’ point of view, to analyze their perceptions and attitudes in relation to digital screening and its impact on the overall cinema viewing experience.
Following 2005, which recorded a considerable increase in the numbers of the country’s digital cinemas, the Italian scenario appears to have been somewhat static over the past few years, slowed down by two main problems: the huge costs of adopting and maintaining the technology and the scarcity of titles distributed in digital format on the Italian market.
The results of the research show that only a small number of exhibitors manage to obtain public financing for the adoption of digital technology (47.4% of exhibitors state that they bought the equipment themselves). For most of them, it appears that it is difficult or impossible for them to update their offer technologically.

Technological innovation or cinema viewing experience?
In addition, the research shows the tendency of Italian exhibitors to consider functional and technological features as being central to the differentiation of the cinema’s offer, to the detriment of factors related more to the spectator’s overall experience and entertainment. The attention paid nowadays, especially in America and in general in multiplexes or megaplexes, to the added value of the leisure-experience and entertainment of spectators has no real counterpart on the Italian scenario, either amongst theatres or amongst audiences at digital screenings, who do not seem to attribute any particular importance to these side features of the theatre’s offer.
Greater attention should nonetheless be devoted to the spectator, who must be accompanied in all phases of his contact with the cinema and its offer. In connection with this it is of vital importance for the theatre to offer the digital spectator an experience that is as involving and as unique as possible, exploiting not so much peripheral aspects linked to social relations, leisure, differentiation of the entertainment offer (e.g. localization of the movie theatre in a context of entertainment, close to pubs, restaurants, disco clubs, etc.), but rather those related to the aesthetic experience connected to the superior and incomparable quality of digital viewing and the overall experience, including the many additional services that allow theatres to assume a truly distinctive position in the minds of their audiences (e.g. services related to access, availability, provision of information, merchandising).

Communicating digital screening: the importance of the medium and the message
As regards the communicative aspect of the cinema’s offer, generally indicated by exhibitors as a very important factor in increasing the theatre’s competitive edge, this assumes a special nature when applied to the field of digital screening. Apart from the classical means of promotion, websites seem to be particularly widespread (used by 78.9% of respondents); however, if we look at the media that make most impact on the public, we discover that websites are amongst the media least used by spectators as a source of information on digital screenings (only used in 14.9% of cases).
Instead, it can be seen that the lion’s share derives from commercials screened in non-digital cinemas (advertising in cinemas is identified by as many as 32.7% of spectators as their source of information on digital screenings).

Sources of information on digital screenings (percentage of respondents)

Synergy thus becomes the keyword in the promotion of digital screening. What is not always possible (the situation of digital screening in Italy, consisting largely of single-screen cinemas, greatly limits this possibility) but to be hoped for is a joint effort in communication by theatres in the same complex, making on-the-spot communication important and at the same time aiming to re-direct the spectator to more innovative tools such as the website for more information and additional services.
In order to increasingly enhance the experiential aspects of the theatre offer, more attention must be devoted in the future to involving the spectator through digital technology, which is at present used very little as a lever in communicating promotional messages, in order to leave room for focusing on aspects of technological innovation and better quality of cinema-going.

Audience reaction
And audiences? How do they react and what do they think about digital screening? Slight awareness of the real features of digital immediately seem to be predominant, with more attention to the title on offer than to how it is shown. Yet, a certain amount of curiosity is starting to arise about the added value offered by digital.

In conclusion it seems rather complicated at present to foresee the future of digital cinema. Nevertheless, in Italy, where we are still waiting to see what outcomes there will be to the present experimental phase of digital, the overall level of satisfaction registered amongst exhibitors (and also, it should be stressed, amongst audiences), together with the policies for expanding the circuits of Italian electronic cinemas, raise good hopes for the future, progressive spread of digital technology across the whole country.

Overall level of satisfaction of exhibitors with the adoption of digital technologies (percentage of respondents)