Execs uneasy as Europe's d-cinema lags

Panelists say an all-digital landscape is far off

AMSTERDAM -- Studio anxiety over the slow pace of Europe's conversion to digital cinema was apparent Thursday at a closing-day seminar at Cinema Expo.

"If we're not operating in an all-digital environment in 10 years, we will have missed the boat," Warner Bros. international distribution president Veronika Kwan-Rubinek said.

Universal's London-based executive vp international distribution Duncan Clark said the installation of digital projectors in 80% or so of the region's cinemas might be a more realistic goal.

"There's a critical mass that needs to be reached," Clark said.

But other participants in the panel discussion -- dubbed "The Industry Speaks Out" and moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp -- noted costs of distributing prints and digital copies of movies represents a double whammy for studios. That's because the majors have agreed to continue to pay "virtual print fees" for years to come to fund the installation of digital systems in the U.S. and Europe.

"Not in my lifetime," Disney international distribution president Anthony Marcoly responded after being asked by Kemp when theatrical distribution might go all-digital.

"How long are you going to live?" Paramount's international boss Andrew Cripps demanded with mock severity.

Yet despite obstacles from the industry's slow conversion to digital, panelists agreed the international theatrical market should continue to grow.

Business in China will be hampered by piracy and politics and India by a market bias for Bollywood product, but Russia has room to grow, Kwan-Rubinek said.

Fox international distribution co-topper Tomas Jegeus said other territories in the former Soviet Union also are growth targets. "We've just opened our own operation in Siberia, which isn't the first market to come to mind," he noted.

"The Middle East is a fantastic spot," Sony international distribution president Mark Zucker said. "Screen averages there are just enormous."

Marcoly cited "room for additional growth and multiplex-building in Italy and the U.K."

And all the panelists agreed recent studio investments in indigenous production worldwide should help to spur more moviegoing. "We're probably the last to get involved in local production, but hopefully we'll just be the best," Jegeus said.

That drew a round of good-natured jibes from the other panelists, but the Fox exec insisted with a grin, "That's our business strategy."

The studio execs also agreed that 3-D movies could help revitalize theatrical business domestically and abroad. But as Marcoly pointed out, "The problem is, you can't have 3-D without digital."CGR Cinema's Jocelyn Bouyssy accepted the exhibitor of the year award, and Paramount Pictures International's Roger Pollock picked up distributor of year laurels.

EDI bestowed Gold Reel Awards to seven distribution companies -- all the majors plus New Line and Pathe -- which released a total of 28 films grossing more than $100 million during the past 12 months. Warner Bros. was honored with a Platinum Reel Award for the more than $500 million in foreign coin collected by its "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Real D, the dominant player in 3-D theater projection, hosted a soccer-watching party for exhibs wanting to catch the nighttime Euro 2008 semifinal. D-cinema vendors Kodak Digital and Barco Digital co-sponsored the reception.

And lest the week slip by without a major new factoid about the much-discussed perils of movie piracy, Cripps offered a cautionary tale about the recent worldwide bow of Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Within days of the summer tentpole's release, an illegal copy of the pic was recorded by camcorder in a French theater, translated into six languages and distributed over the Internet, Cripps said.