Paramount plans to pay exhibs for digital play

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Paramount said Thursday that it will offer qualifying exhibitors payments for playing its films on digital screens.

Theater operators in the U.S. and Canada will get payments amounting to a "virtual print fee" every time they play a Paramount pic, provided they haven't dipped into d-cinema funding through studio-funded consortiums. Additionally, the exhibitor must have converted half of its screens to digital or boast at least one 3-D digital auditorium, Par exec vp distribution Mark Christiansen said.

"There's no upfront money involved," he said. "We're not offering to buy the equipment. But if the exhibitor goes out and acquires the equipment on their own, we will pay them for playing Paramount films over a prescribed 10-year period."

The distribution exec said he hopes other studios follow Paramount's lead.

"Paramount is getting out front on this critical industry transition, and we applaud them," said John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "For some of our members, it could make the difference in surviving and thriving in the digital era, and it certainly enables some exhibitors to get wired much faster — and that means more 3-D screens sooner. We urge all studios to give this creative option a fair chance."

Separately, Par has signed nine d-cinema integration deals, including domestic agreements with Cinedigm, Kodak, Sony Electronics and Digital Cinema Implementation Partners. Its three European deals involve integrators XDC, Arts Alliance Media and Ymagis, and two pacts in Asia were struck with DCK and GDC.

The global credit crunch has dampened the digital rollout in recent months, and a related 3-D push also has been affected.

To date, some 5,800 digital screens domestically and more than 2,100 internationally are in place. There are a 1,605 digital 3-D screens in the U.S. and Canada and another 650 abroad.

The 3-D numbers are considered especially paltry. A dozen 3-D films scheduled for release this year include the animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" from DreamWorks Animation and Paramount, set to open March 27 domestically.

Under the new Paramount plan, payments for showing pics on 3-D screens will be slightly higher than for playing pics on conventional digital screens.

"It's a real big breakthrough, and I am counting on the other distributors to follow through on this, too," DWA chief Jeffrey Katzenberg said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for a number of exhibitors who have not had access to the kind of funding that now will be provided on a theater by theater basis, as well as for larger exhibitors who have been frozen out of the market because of the credit crunch."

The Par move should boost momentum on the industry's 3-D rollout, Katzenberg added. By the time "Monsters vs. Aliens" unspools, 3-D installations should climb to 2,200 domestic screens and 1,300 international screens, he estimated. (partialdiff)
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