Technology: a democratic choice?

Interview with Kees Ryninks, Managing Director of CinemaNet Europe

In issue no. 2/2005 of our Newsletter and in the “Course Report” of “DigiTraining Plus” 2004, we discussed the transition from DocuZone to CinemaNet Europe and the objectives of this circuit. One year on, how has CinemaNet Europe evolved?
After its opening weekend in November 2004, in which eight documentaries from the participating countries were shown, CinemaNet Europe evolved in 2005 more or less as planned. The roll-out to the cinemas in the countries has been completed and since January CNE has jointly released 10 documentaries which were in general well received by the press and audience alike. Equally all countries digitally released local features and documentaries. More than 100 titles were shown across the whole network totalling more than 15,000 digital screenings.

What are the most significant steps and the most interesting projects?
With the advantages of digital distribution becoming more familiar to European makers and thus the prospect of more titles being offered, CNE is now looking into the release of alternative content. In August Germany premiered on 4 consecutive Sundays the full 18 hours of Wagner’s ‘Das Ring des Nibelungen’ with many theatres being fully booked, often in advance. This local success encouraged some partners of CNE to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday by releasing several of his well-known operas this January. Again many cinemas were sold out. More importantly these were new audiences for the cinemas, strengthening our idea that with alternative content the cinemas can look forward to increasing their audience base. On a technical level CNE continues to develop. Our 1.4K DLP Panasonic projectors are proving very popular with the audience for their film-like look and with the cinema operators for their reliability. Working on High Definition, and therefore having to upscale most of our products, CNE has managed to keep the technical quality of their masters close to 2K. This all confirms our belief that for our kind of small, independent cinemas (with screen sizes up to 8 meters), the DCI specs are wholly inappropriate and unnecessary.   

What objectives still remain to be achieved?
CNE has many more objectives to achieve. In March we are adopting MXF as the packaging technology, specified encryption and key delivery methods recommended by DCI for our whole network. In Germany, The Netherlands and Spain we are starting with distribution by ADSL2+ connections. Having spent a big part of 2005 exploring and testing satellite distribution it was the sudden expansion of the internet which gave us the opportunity to become the first to leave hard disk transport behind and start experimenting with network distribution. With part of these live links in place we can now seriously explore the opportunities of live introductions and Question & Answer sessions to spark up our premieres, both for the CNE and the local releases. 

Why are so many European countries missing from this circuit?
With seven countries involved CNE is the largest international digital network with content being delivered on a weekly basis. CNE has regular talks with like-minded networks in Europe like the Folkets Hus initiative. Unfortunately due to the commercial priorities of some manufacturers, the most attractive element of working digitally, namely the easy exchange of programming, has failed thus far, as inter-operability seems a long way off. But talks continue with other European countries to expand the network in the near future. 

The technology chosen by CinemaNet Europe is an alternative to that recognised by the DCI specifications. A “democratic” choice, certainly more accessible. But… is something lost?
CNE made its technical decisions in July 2004 after rigorous testing (and one year before the DCI specs were presented). Our choice of 1.4K DLP projectors and the GDC servers was based on quality and price. Waiting for any organisation to set the standards was no option and as we can see now is hindering the start of any other serious roll-out due to prohibitive pricing levels. Across 2005 we have been fighting our technical corner and managed to convince many sceptics of the viability of our chosen technology. We cater for a particular section of the European art-house movies and we are of the opinion that the dominance of American main-stream should not control our exhibition and distribution networks again, like it has done since the second World War. It is therefore painful to see how happy other European organisations seem to follow the Americans unquestioningly, unlike for instance the Chinese where E-Cinema serves screens up to 8 meters and D-Cinema all sizes above. With a bit more imagination and willingness to stand up and be counted the European digital roll-out could have been much further advanced. That in turn could have served the cinemas and distributors very well, since in 2005 they had to deal with a drop in their audience figures of more than 10%. Saving money on release prints could have made the difference.

If you had to persuade an exhibitor of the advisability of changing over to digital cinema, what would you say to him?
Talk to cinemas that are in our network. They are now experiencing the first advantages of digital cinema. More flexibility in programming so they can cater more for niche audiences, more opportunities to find new audiences, more effective use of screenings and more choice in content.

You were a speaker at “DigiTraining Plus” 2004: what impression has that experience left you?
That we need to repeat over and over again the advantages of going digital, particularly for the smaller art-house cinemas and movies. That this will be a very long road and that those who have involved themselves in this process of conversion have a responsibility to make it work.