by Elisabetta Brunella

There are 253 cinemas for a total 750 screens operating in the Netherlands, a market that crossed the 28-million-spectator threshold in 2010, doubling the results of the early Nineties. To date almost three hundred auditoriums – 296 to be precise - have switched to the new projection technologies thanks to Cinema Digitaal. This is the tool designed by Dutch distributors and exhibitors to allow all the country’s screens access to a rapid and complete digital transition. The aim is to succeed, by summer 2012, in digitalizing 510 screens with widely varying characteristics – from arthouse single-screen movie houses to urban multi-screen venues, from small circuits to medium- and large-size chains. Cinema Digitaal, an organization with formal no-profit status, was founded to bring together all operators with the exception of three exhibition chains - Pathé, Euroscoop and Utopolis – which had already set out independently on the path to digital technology, the former signing a direct agreement with the majors, while the other two making use of the French integrator Ymagis in the role of intermediary.
Cinema Digitaal was keenly designed by the professional associations, NVB for the exhibitors and NVF for the distributors, who joined forces to “invent” a VPF model that would work for everyone. To achieve this, the involvement of EYE – the Netherlands film institute – and the contributions made available by the government using PRIMA, the country’s project for technological innovation, and by the Netherlands Film Fund were crucial.
Cinema Digitaal chose to make use of an intermediary, AAM, which guarantees the installation of digital systems and management of the VPF, including agreements with the distributors – the studios and 16 independent Dutch companies – and the collection and redistribution of the fees. It is foreseen that the entire operation will take a maximum of ten years to complete and cost an overall 39 million euros. This will be covered mainly by the VPF, estimated at 25 million euros. To this must be added the state contribution to the sum of 5.4 million euros, the income from alternative content (1.1 million euros) and direct investment by the exhibitors, amounting to 7.5 million euros. The companies that have joined Cinema Digitaal voluntarily – an impressive 177 of them – agree to pay a total sum per screen of 14,600 euros, to be settled in eight annual instalments of 1,200 euros each, added to an initial down-payment of 5,000 euros. This makes it possible to install equipment for digital projection (projector and server) guaranteed for ten years, which, by the end of the operation, will become the property of the exhibitor. Instead, the agreement does not include equipment for 3D screening, which is the complete responsibility of the exhibitor. Commenting positively on the completion of three fifths of the installations foreseen, Ron Sterk, Managing Director of the NVB, declared:
“We are very satisfied that, by using a system of mixed public/private financing, the alliance between distributors and exhibitors has allowed us to avoid the shift to the new technologies excluding the sector of more commercially fragile cinemas. In this way we have managed to save 20% of the country’s screens from closure.” On the side of the distributors, who have agreed to pay the VPF for a maximum of ten years, confidence is also to be seen in the effects of the agreements: “By means of this scheme, which allows the digitalization of cinemas with extremely varying characteristics and programming,” says Michel Lambrechtsen, Managing Director of the NVF, “Dutch distributors are ensuring themselves the widest possible chances of distribution for a series of contents ranging from quality films to the most popular titles.”
Amongst the lessons that have been learned to date, the protagonists emphasize that information and training of all those involved in digitalization and their counterparts, starting from public institutions, are almost as important as the actual money. And that collective schemes work if everyone, without exception, is willing to “play the game”.

This article has been published in the "Giornale dello Spettacolo" no. 18, 25 November 2011