Box Office Gold?

While long a subject of enthusiastic tub-thumping and general huckstering at tradeshows around the globe, the actual roll-out of digital cinema around the world is starting to resemble the script for one of those tedious “will they, won’t they” romantic comedies. Loveable cinema industry is trapped in an unhappy relationship with 35 mm, when along comes shiny new technology that promises a bright future. But then he takes her out on a date and forgets to pay the bill; then he loses his job as lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy; then his younger brother 3D starts shouting for attention; then her parents say how 35 mm is always the safe option and she should stick with that. Just add Cameron Diaz in the leading role and get Judd Apatow to write a few risque set-pieces and presto! Box office gold!

The fact is the digital-cinema picture was a complex one before the world economy drove off a cliff last summer, and the dolorous economic conditions that have held sway since have only served to further muddy the waters. As soon as one report heralds a surge in new screens opening, another emphasises caution as the watchword. So what, exactly, is happening out there? Well, as Disraeli put it, there are lies, damned lies and statistics, all further obfuscated by reliable data from one territory being a year or so behind reliable data from another, but it’s safe to say that the rollout is definitely going through a wobbly period.

The figure for the total amount of cinema screens worldwide varies between 100,000 and 110,000, and at the end of last year it was suggested that around 9,000 of those had been converted to digital projection, which, considering the DCI spec was only locked down in 2005, is fairly rapid growth. London-based film-research specialist Dodona Research puts the 2009 figure at almost 12,000, and then extrapolates further, saying that 22,000 screens will be digital by 2012. In other words, growth is going to be slow and steady rather than the vertiginous upwards curve once envisaged. And beyond that, as the organisation concludes: “The global economic meltdown leaves the outlook and timetable for converting the remaining four-fifths of cinema screens to digital projection still unclear.”

And, of course, it has to be acknowledged that the global number of screens is not distributed evenly. Far from it. On the 2008 figures, the Americas boasted 65 percent of digital screens, with the Asia Pacific region and Europe both accounting for approximately 17 percent each and Africa and the Middle East very much bringing up the rear.

How is Europe doing in the digital-cinema stakes? The answer is not too well, with installations significantly stalled over the past year. Dodonda’s figures notwithstanding, the growth in European digital-cinema screen installations has plummeted from approximately 80 percent in 2007/8 to under 25 percent in 2008/9, with around 1,600 screens stretched across the continent at time of writing.

The problem is that a lot of the chain-wide conversions to digital screens that were planned got shelved once the credit dried up, and the issues that bedevilled digital-cinema rollout in Europe last year — namely complex Virtual Print Fee arrangements; concern about the future compliance of equipment and the increasingly looming presence of 4k — are still very much in place. The conversions that have taken place have been mainly on a screen-by-screen basis, and also mainly been driven by the big 3D blockbusters (the premium ticket prices charged for stereo 3D led to much quicker recouping of the installation costs, a fact which has seen the proportion of 3D screens as a percentage of the digital overall in the U.K., for instance, rise to 23 percent last year).

Also, the European digital landscape is very much dominated by two companies, Arts Alliance Media and XDC. Both provide a soup-to-nuts digital-cinema “solution,” from financing to buying the kit at the front-end to then supplying the content to drive the screens at the other end. When it works, it works well, but more competition would not be a bad thing and the two are under increasing pressure from smaller, country-specific schemes such as the one run by Digital Cinema Limited in Ireland. Government bodies are looking to get involved too. Norway’s Film & Kino is in the tendering stage of a process that will see all of the country’s cinemas convert to DCI-compliant screens by the end of 2011, while the U.K.’s Film Council has committed £1.2m to rolling out a pilot scheme that will introduce digital cinema specifically into rural regions.

It is also worth pointing out that more and more effort is being put in by cinema owners to uncovering new revenue streams and screening alternate content (AC). It’s early yet, but digital cinema and satellite delivery are tailor-made for screening AC, and the number of events is on the rise. In the U.K. they doubled last year to 67, the majority of them being opera screenings, which is still a tiny number, but a potentially significant one for the future.

Speaking of which, as the IBC conference rapidly looms and the conference shows every sign of embracing digital cinema with as much huckstering and tub-thumping as ever, what will be on show? On the show floor it’s too early to say, though P+S Technik’s announcement that they will release three brand-new 3D rigs gives an indication of which way the wind might be blowing there, with stereo 3D very much at the forefront. The company is also demonstrating, with other manufacturers such as ARRI and Christie on the IBC Big Screen, a 4k-capable, 5.1 surround-equipped 1000+ seater auditorium in the middle of the RAI, which really is one of the show’s unique selling points. It’s also going to be host to what promises to be a fascinating double session where the ASC and BSC run through their individual image assessment programmes comparing digital motion picture cameras to each other and to film, though whether it will be such comfortable viewing for all the manufacturers concerned is another question entirely.

In the end, whatever digital-cinema developments take place at IBC2009 are inevitably hostage to the wider global economic conditions. The possibility is there for the romantic comedy to end up happily ever after, with a sharply scripted third act and a couple of cameo appearances from ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actors who believe in the idea offering vast amounts of money to the hero who wins the girl in the end. On the other hand though, if the economy continues to stumble, we may have to wait for the inevitable sequels.