Digital dearth in Europe

Proponents realize there may be no d-cinema 'big bang'

AMSTERDAM -- The time warp that is digital cinema figured prominently Monday in opening-day seminars at Cinema Expo.

In the U.S., the rollout of d-cinema systems in multiplexes nationwide is sufficiently progressed -- at almost 5,000 movie-quality screens -- that exhibitors already are eyeing the additional implementation of 3-D hardware. Pacific-Asian exhibition is even further around the digital bend, with an installed base of about 6,500 screens.

Yet in Europe, which has fewer than 1,000 digital screens at present, d-cinema is largely a theoretical discussion.

Money woes and other impediments figured in a session billed as "D-cinema in Europe -- Stalled?" But a speaker recounted overhearing a telling comment in the hotel bar the night before.

"Stalled?" a bemused conventioneer asked. "I didn't know it had started."

Of course, the d-cinema rollout is more progressed in some European markets, with the U.K., Belgium, France and Russia getting better traction than elsewhere. Installation outfits XDC and Arts Alliance Media have helped roll out systems for about 400 and 326 screens, respectively, keeping the region's digital pulse pumping if not racing.

Exhibitors here appear relatively sanguine about the situation. That's partly because independent films represent a higher portion of the product mix, and indies haven't been keen to distribute films digitally as the major studios nor to help exhibs fund installations.

"In Europe, there will be no big bang for digital cinema," said Dutch Distributors Assn. director Michael Lambrechtsen, who seemed more upset over Holland's weekend soccer loss to Russia. "This is economically and physically impractical."

D-cinema proponents in the U.S. might say the technology's rollout there has hardly been a "big bang" event either. But the stateside use of "virtual print fees" as a means of securing studio funding for digital theater installations has gotten much quicker traction than in Europe, where the spreading sense is that exhibitors might have to carry a much greater portion of the financial burden themselves.

"Individual (circuits) will progress faster or slower depending on their economic strength," Lambrechtsen said.

Inertia on d-cinema is so palpable on the continent that another speaker felt the need to remind people the digital trend is inevitable.

"It's a clear imperative that the movie business is going in the digital direction," European Digital Cinema Forum chief Dave Monk said. "Not going there is just not a practical option."

A pantheon of top d-cinema vendors are on board at Cinema Expo to help show European exhibitors how it's all done. Such companies as DLP, Soy Electronics, Imax, Dolby and Christie Digital also are involved in several movie screenings set for digital presentation at the confab.

Those include Paramount's "Tropic Thunder," set for a screening Thursday night. Screenings set for later in the week include Sony's "Pineapple Express," Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" and Disney's "Wall-E," among others.

Meanwhile, one potentially helpful development in the d-cinema rollout emerged Monday, when Belgium-based installations facilitator XDC said it's signed up the final two majors to virtual print fee arrangements. The pacts with Sony and Universal follow similar XDC deals with Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount and Fox.

XDC now must convince individual circuits throughout Europe to tap into VPFs, through which studios would help defray costs of exhibitors' d-cinema installations costs. But execs said the arrangements theoretically could cover up to 8,000 new digital installations throughout the region.

Cinema Expo continues through Thursday at the RAI convention center.

Leo Cendrowicz in Brussels contributed to this report.