19% of European screens digitalised by mid 2010



In 2004, only the bat of an eyelid away, there were thirty digital screens in the whole of Europe. By 30 June 2010 almost seven thousand are to be counted: to be precise, according to MEDIA Salles’ most recent results, there are 6,680 projectors using DLP Cinema or SXRD technology. At 1st January 2010 there were 4,684: the growth rate thus stands at around 43%. In other words, in the first half of 2010 the average number of new installations per month touched on 350. And – according to exhibitors having difficulty in finding projectors on the market – the only reason this figure is not even larger is that the suppliers are unable to produce more. Not only has the phenomenon beginning at the start of 2009 continued, but it has even become more marked: at that time average monthly installations came to around 260.
The number of cinemas equipped with at least one digital screen grew from 2,366 at the beginning of January 2010 to 3,173 in June 2010 with a 34% increase, which is a lower rate than for the number of screens. Consequently, the average number of digital screens per complex has increased, standing at 2.1.
France confirms the largest number of digital theatres: there are 1,262 screens in the Hexagon, thanks to a 40% rise, substantially in line with the average for the Continent. Next comes the United Kingdom with 997 installations and an increase (49%) slightly above average. In third place once again is Germany, with 738 digital projectors and a more limited growth rate (30%). After Italy, which reaches a level of 609 (+40%), comes Russia (525 projectors, +50%) and Spain which, with a 63% growth rate, makes up lost ground, increasing to 412 projectors. These figures show that Europe’s 6 top cinema-going markets – those that count at least a hundred million spectators each year - cover around 62% of the Continent’s offer of digital structures, with a repeat of the situation to be seen at the beginning of 2010. However, the incidence of some smaller territories has increased, where well above-average growth rates have been experienced, such as Denmark (+188%), Sweden (+145%) and Slovakia (+140%).

Has the digital revolution taken place? Yes and no, considering that despite the undeniable boom starting in 2009 and continuing throughout 2010, which has raised the penetration of digital screens to around 19% of the total screen base, four fifths of Europe’s total screens still rely on 35mm. What is more, the incidence of the large circuits is tending to grow: if in mid 2009 the top ten European operators in terms of numbers of digital theatres accounted for 24% of the screens that had converted to the new technology, twelve months later they accounted for 36%. In fact, 2,372 screens out of 6,680 belong to them.
How to include all cinemas in operation, though with different vocations and objectives – from the purely commercial ones to those with a primarily social or cultural function – in the migration towards the new technology in each country, this is the big question that both the private and public sectors are endeavouring to answer in Europe. The conference promoted by Spain at the beginning of 2010 during its term of European presidency was an opportunity to present and discuss initiatives and projects in this field, mainly addressing independent exhibition. If, on the one hand, the companies proposing VPF agreements argue that at least 80% of screens could finance the transition using this model, on the other hand, there is an increase in solutions that foresee public intervention at least as a form of integration, from Italy’s tax credit to the contributions made available – after the “pioneering” interventions in the United Kingdom and Norway – at a national level, as in Finland, France and more recently the Netherlands, or supra-national, as in the case of the European Commission or the Eurimages Fund of the Council of Europe. Without neglecting the “openings” of the EIB, to facilitate access to bank loans or the European Regional Development funds for projects that see the digitalization of cinemas as the engine for forms of local growth, as in the often quoted case of the Malopolska region of Poland.

The third dimension

What certainly has come about is the “3D revolution”, in view of the fact that, out of all the screens that have converted to the new technology adopting 2K or more recently 4K, at June 2010 a striking 79% also proved to be equipped for 3D (compared to 74% in December 2009).
Of the 5,277 3D installations at the end of June 2010, 3,699 are to be found on the six leading markets. Here, too, France, which sprang into the lead in the digital transition in 2009, is responsible for the lion’s share with 890 units, followed by the United Kingdom (741) and Germany (619). Next come Italy and Russia, both with over 500 installations (respectively 563 and 521), and Spain (365). Sustained by the availability of products from the US film industry, which respected the calendar of releases initially announced, the rush to 3D has been the engine of digitalization in the past two years. The key to change for this phenomenon was the hearty welcome given to the new development by audiences, prepared to pay more for tickets to this type of film and, basically, finance the purchase of the new equipment. Thus, whilst we shall still have to wait some time for digitalization in the strict sense of the term, i.e. for the digital conversion of all the screens in a complex, and above all to find the necessary resources to include even the less profitable theatres in the process, 3D is already immediately available in a large number of venues, whether multiplexes or not. A passing phenomenon?
There are those who, mindful of the past, in other words the recurrent but short-lived bouts of interests in 3D, remain fairly sceptical. Others, instead, in view of the amount of capital invested both in 3D production and in the theatres, believe that stereoscopic films, whilst not managing to replace 2D, will become a regular part of the cinemagoer’s “diet”. Amongst those who hold this view, for instance, is the Director of the Venice Festival, Marco Müller, who, when talking about the 3D creative award instituted by his festival, declared: “3D technology cannot be labelled a passing whim; fortunately 3D is here to stay.”

European productions make their first appearances in 3D

And if, up to now, films “made in America” have dominated the international 3D scenario – with rare European exceptions, such as the precursor Fly me to the Moon – 2010 saw a significant number of titles from the Old Continent adopting the new technology to try out different languages and genres. And, most importantly, obtain international distribution. Thus the range covers a documentary exploring the depths of the ocean, such as the French-Swiss-Spanish co-production Océans, to the British Streetdance, an enormous audience success focusing entirely on dance, to cartoons such as the Finnish Moomins and the Comet Chase, the Belgian Sammy’s Avonturen and the recent Winx Club: Magic Adventure from Italy, not forgetting horror, where the Dutch co-production Amphibious 3D takes its place. Moreover, this passion for 3D is one of the elements which demonstrates that the digital shift means far more than simply replacing one type of projector with another. It is, in fact, true that the movie theatre and what it offers its audiences are undergoing a transformation. We have witnessed this with the success of visual music on the big screen – whether opera or the latest rock concert – with the worldwide attraction of live sports events in every continent and we can see it with 3D, which once again makes movie theatres into the favourite place for enjoying a show that cannot be reproduced on the small screen at home or on a laptop. What is more, 3D itself is far more than just the addition of special effects to “normal films”. In the video interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist for the latest Biennale of Architecture in Venice, Wim Wenders, commenting on his 3D film, which takes the audience to discover and, above all, “listen to” a magical building – the Lausanne Rolex Centre – said: “3D is a language. In the near future it will invigorate the documentary, giving it body and volume.”
And addressing new artists he continued by speaking of the extraordinary opportunities offered by digital technologies and the Internet: “Today there are enormous opportunities for creation. My dream is that in the 21st century communication tools will increasingly be in the hands of the people rather than in those of the old powers.” This is the challenge facing theatres and European cinema, too: that the new technologies should increasingly transform them into a space for creativity and for the expression of cultural diversity.