D-cinema is a coming attraction

Study: European expansion could start as early as '08

One-third of all modern cinema screens worldwide will be digitized by 2010, according to the latest report on digital-cinema rollout published Monday. For Europe, wide-scale digital conversion could come as early as next year.

The bold statement, in a report from U.K.-based research house Screen Digest, follows last week's decision by Sony Pictures Releasing International to become the latest studio-owned overseas distributor to sign a nonexclusive, long-term deal with Europe-based digital-cinema deployment outfit Arts Alliance Media.

Sony stands alongside 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures International and Paramount Pictures International with agreements for digital distribution with AAM.

Report author David Hancock said that with the studios signing up to supply content in digital form, exhibitors will be more confident.

"The insurmountable obstacle of exhibitor access to key content has been removed with four studios now backing a rollout program, and the building blocks for a mainstream market deployment are in place," he said.

The report noted that the digitization of screens is fastest in the U.K. but pointed out that that is partly because of the government-backed U.K. Film Council's 240-screen Digital Screen Network.

Screen Digest estimates that 75% of U.K. screens will be digital by the end of 2012.

For the rest of Europe, however, obstacles remain.

"The key building blocks for the European market are moving into place, and the (French exhibitor) CGR deal (to digitize its entire network) indicates that a viable model has been found," Hancock said. "However, it would be naive to suggest that the conversion to digital is proving easy, and the key issue that continues to tax people in Europe is how to pay for it for all levels of the market."

Globally, there will be 5,500 high-end digital cinemas at the end of this year — 5.5% of all modern screens — up from 2,996 last year. A giant 78% of those are in the U.S., the report said.