Theater operators explore digital, 3D strategies

Cinema Expo attendees raise funding, operating questions

AMSTERDAM -- The havoc and debris strewn about the giant RAI convention center from a local rail project serves as a ripe metaphor for those who attended the 19th edition of Cinema Expo.

Theater operators spent much of the week digging into schemes for digital and 3D theater systems amid a din of conflicting proposals from an array of tech vendors. While pedestrians near the RAI dodged forklifts and backhoes as well as the usual droves of bicyclists, exhibitors must navigate an array of funding and operating issues if they are to hop aboard the digital-cinema bandwagon.

"Business continues to be good, but exhibitors ask, 'How good will 3D continue to be?' " said National Association of Theatre Owners chief John Fithian, whose members include a notable European component. "As for the debate about systems, we're still in the early stages of testing the technology. So that's always a good discussion to have at an event like this."

The thicket of competitors vying for a piece of the 3D market got thicker with the recent unveiling of a system from Panavision. Like a competing system from Technicolor, Panavision's 3D lens adapters and moviegoer glasses can be used to outfit conventional film-based projection systems with 3D capabilities.

But in a potential marketing advantage, Panavision said its system also can be used with digital projectors. That means exhibitors can buy the system as a stopgap means of adding 3D and convert to digital later.

Panavision pitches its system as a flexible approach for cash-strapped exhibitors to get into 3D, but d-cinema proponents fear it will impede a rapid industrywide conversion to digital. Some also claim there simply are too many 3D vendors, with RealD, MasterImage and Dolby pushing rival digital systems.

"The problem is, everybody's going after the same customer," one industryite said.

Studio executives used the four-day confab to meet with theater owners about virtual-print-fee agreements that distributors are offering to help pay for the digital rollout. They also used the week's meet-and-greets to assure anxious exhibitors that any tinkering with the theatrical release window will be modest and done in collaboration with circuits.

"There's been a lot of discussion of windows this week," Fithian said. "A lot of the European exhibitors are watching the studios' positions on video-on-demand very closely."

Studios have tended to hold back movies from VOD and other home entertainment platforms for four months but are mulling a more rapid release of select titles.

Alternative programming presentations are another burgeoning area of interest. CineWorld chief Steve Wiener said his U.K. circuit's recent decision to convert all 790 screens to digital was prompted more by an enthusiasm for such alternative theatrical programming as sporting events and musical concerts than 3D movies.

"The 3D was just the icing on the cake," said Wiener, a New York-born exhibition lifer who became an avid proponent of alternative programming after seeing fans pack his theaters during the rugby World Cup.

CineWorld also is programming eight matches during soccer's World Cup.

Like the industry it serves, Cinema Expo also continues to evolve, and this year it marked a first-ever partnership with the International Union of Cinemas, or UNIC. Confab organizers are pursuing a long-term relationship with the Paris-based organization and, if achieved, plan a name change to CineEurope.

"UNIC has helped bolster attendance this year," Cinema Expo managing director Robert Sunshine said.

Cinema Expo attendance reached 1,000 for the first time in several years, according to a preliminary estimate, making for an impressive 15% gain compared with last year. Trade-show floor participation was up 6% this year with 162 booths.

The confab is owned by e5 Global Media, parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.

"There is a good feeling right now because business has been so good," Sunshine said.

International business has been especially good. Russia and other emerging markets are fueling big growth in foreign boxoffice, and that's raised European exhibitors' collective sense of importance to Hollywood.

"I anticipate a market of between $1 billion-$1.2 billion in Russia this year," KinoStar chief Paul Heth said. "I think it will be $2 billion within four to five years."

Heth's 2010 territorial forecast represents a 25% increase from last year, lifting Russia into the top five international boxoffice markets. The remarkable growth spurt has ridden a surge in economic prosperity in Russia, where anti-piracy efforts have reined in movie theft to more manageable proportions.

Heth's Russian circuit operates theaters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with plans to expand into four other markets this year.

"The business does realize that international boxoffice is very important, and they are excited about the growth opportunity," Sunshine said.