3D cinema surges ahead in Europe

Europe surpasses U.S. in number of 3D screens available

AMSTERDAM -- Surging regional interest in 3D cinema has triggered a rapid pickup in the conversion of theaters to digital-projection systems, producing an estimated 5,500 European digital screens by midyear.

"Almost all of the growth in Europe has been driven by 3D," Paramount exec vp distribution Mark Christiansen said Tuesday. "In the past year, Europe has surpassed the U.S. in the number of 3D screens available."

More than 75% of Europe's digital screens had been outfitted for 3D by the end of the first quarter, which featured a 16% uptick in the digital conversion rate, Screen Digest analyst David Hancock told an audience of exhibitors at a Cinema Expo seminar on d-cinema.

Digital penetration varies greatly country to country, with Luxembourg topping the region at 72%, while Serbia lags all others with just 2% of its screens converted. The U.K. is a standout among larger territories at 22% digital, compared with just 13% of screens converted in Italy.

France -- which has converted 20% of its screens to digital projection systems -- is a 3D leader, with 768 French screens boasting 3D capability by March 31.

Virtual print fee (VPF) agreements with Hollywood majors are pumping more than $600 million into Europe to help with digital conversions. But with $2.75 billion needed in total for the digital rollout, several countries are supplementing studio largesse with public funding.

Gamila Ylistra of the Netherlands' Eye Film Institute said time is of the essence as the Dutch d-cinema administrator strives to convert the remaining 80% of the territory's roughly 650 screens to digital by mid-2012.

"The transition is more expensive the longer it takes," Ylistra said.

Meantime, the exhibition landscape varies greatly throughout the region, and industry officials are struggling to tailor funding to suit individual markets.

In Poland, 80% of the cinemas are municipally operated, and most have yet to board the digital bandwagon.

"The public cinemas are not so keen to finance the process," said Marta Materska-Samek of Poland's Foundation of Cinema Development.

Most of the publicly owned theaters serve populations of 20,000 residents or less, making government support difficult, she said.

Paramount is among studios seeking to customize financial support for smaller exhibitors.

"Every territory comes with its own solution," Christiansen stressed. "There is not one way to do it."

Of 32,000 European screens, 23,800 have been targeted for support via Hollywood studios' VPFs. Though the number of installed digital systems is much smaller, the pace of regional conversions is gathering steam, Hancock said.

"We've seen lots of deals struck for screens in the last four to five months," the analyst said. "They're not installed yet, but they have been committed."

An annual confab serving the regional exhibition industry, Cinema Expo continues through Thursday at the RAI convention center here.
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