By Carole Tongue

Interactive cinema distribution

Film distribution has always taken, and continues to take, the lion’s share of the EU’s Media programmes. This is, of course, in recognition of the immense problems faced by film makers beyond the Hollywood mainstream in acquiring widespread distribution in their home countries, let alone any where else. Now we have new digital distribution technologies: digital projection, DVD, the internet, and films delivered by satellite. Will this transform not only the way in which films are distributed but the diversity of films available to all of Europe’s citizens? Or will these new technologies simply lead to still further concentration of the distribution and exhibition sectors? For example, at the moment only large companies can easily afford the 1000 copies of a film needed to saturate a large territory. However, with satellite technology, distribution of a film to 2000 or 3000 screens will not be a problem. But will European films and independent films from around the world still have difficulty in reaching a screen?

odeon-leicester-square-1937.jpgOdeon Leicester Square 1937, courtesy of The Architects Journal ©Charles Borup

According to recent figures from the European Audiovisual Observatory, in 1998 US films took over 90% of the Dutch and German box offices, over 80% of the UK’s and 64% of those of France and Italy. The situation has not improved over the last two years. Most European citizens simply do not have access to a wide range of films from around the world unless they live near a film festival city.

Over the past few years, numerous British papers have reported how few UK films supported by the Lottery have ever reached a cinema screen. The lazy journalistic conclusion has been to blame the films themselves rather than to ask whether our distribution/exhibition mechanisms might be to blame and to enquire whether the adoption of new digital technologies might improve the situation.

In 1998 Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic showed on only 16 UK screens but many more in France. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom reached a mere 20 screens in the UK compared to 150 in France. And why did La Vie Revee des Anges find itself confined to a single screen in the UK for 27 weeks – a film capable of attracting a huge audience, particularly among young people?

Screen Finance recently reported that the UK has 113 multiplexes, representing 46.6% of all cinema screens. This compares with Germany’s 73 multiplexes representing 17% of total screens and France’s 72 multiplexes representing 16% of all screens. This all too clearly illustrates Britain’s relative lack of independent, town centre cinemas, a situation which provides fewer outlets for independent film. However, new digital technology could, if given the opportunity, change all this.

Today, feature films, advertisements and trailers are physically transported to individual cinemas as prints struck from original negatives. The US spends a staggering $1 billion per annum on striking and distributing prints for new releases. By contrast, France’s film distributors spend just 500 million francs. European, subtitled films suffer disproportionately in this process. The print cost of a Hollywood movie is approximately £250-£500 while a subtitled film print invariably costs between £1500-£2000.

The film industry has examined the idea of electronic distribution for many years. However, now that electronic projector technology has been tested and functions well, a single worldwide standard for high-resolution images has been adopted and the price of servers is reasonable. New digital technology now offers the prospect of not only reducing the cost of distributing films but of sending a great diversity of films to areas of the globe with no access to a cinema at all.

curzon-mayfair-1966.jpgCurzon Mayfair 1966 courtesy of The Architects Journal ©Charles Borup

Digital distribution of films offers two enormous advantages: lower costs and higher quality film projection. However, although it will cost a distributor less to send out a film in digital form than on celluloid, exhibitors will have to buy new projectors, which presently cost approximately £70,000. 

The major barrier to the full-scale introduction of digital projection is thus obviously investment. At present prices, many independent exhibitors will simply not be able to invest in the new technology which, for the moment, looks likely to benefit most the bigger and best-endowed cinema chains. However, as with all new communications technologies, the price of projectors will eventually come down considerably. Furthermore, large mainstream cinemas will at some point upgrade their digital projectors and sell off their old ones, which should present independent exhibitors with the chance to pick up digital equipment relatively cheaply. On the other hand, it still remains to be seen how keen the Hollywood studios will actually be in investing any further in digital projection when they already enjoy such a vast share of the European box office.

An extremely hopeful omen of a more diverse digital future is the CyberCinema project (the brainchild of the German film director, Peter Fleischmann, and run from the European Centre of Babelsberg Film Studios) This is intended to create a network of digital cinema theatres and spaces in those European regions with insufficient cinema provision, which will be carried out in partnership with new and existing cinema operators, local authorities and other appropriate local bodies and communities. By transmitting data digitally and by satellite, CyberCinema aims to bring back films and events to places which lost their cinemas long ago. The idea is to create public spaces for a varied and attractive programme of European and international films, interactive entertainment, and education in all meanings of the word, and to generate a sense of community. As Ron Inglis, independent arts and cinema consultant, puts it: “The CyberCinema project offers to provide a new, richly varied type of cinema for many people in cinema-deprived areas. The use of new technologies and organisational structures will make it simple for cinemagoers and cinema managers in remote areas such as Scottish Islands and mainland rural communities to become part of the contemporary media world and , importantly, to offer their own contributions to others. The potential of CyberCinema is enormous.”

beach-camp-gaza.jpgBeach camp in Gaza, Palestine ©Jenny Matthews

Cybercinemas could be established in every European Union country as well as in non EU countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Films will be dubbed into the five principal languages of the EU and/or sub-titled in all European languages. Digital transmission combined with interactivity will give an innovative character to the distribution of national films across the whole of Europe. Films will reach far wider audiences which will be able to discover not only new kinds of films but new ways of informing themselves about their European neighbours At the same time, CyberCinema will help to ensure the survival of European cinema in the far- flung, economically disadvantaged regions of Europe. As well as being able to show entertainment films to a wide audience, CyberCinema will also be able to deliver art films, documentaries, retrospectives and other types of themed programmes, and even film festivals and competitions.

Thus CyberCinema is not just about replacing traditional techniques of delivering commercial films using digital technology, but creating, thanks to this new technology, new ways of showing films. For example, it offers the possibility for Cyberforums – film discussion events in which many people have never been able to participate because of their geographical isolation. But above all CyberCinema represents a valuable opportunity to counter the ever-growing concentration of the distribution sector, and to involve cinema owners in the organisation of a project to encourage the diversity of European languages, cultures and experiences. It will network both established and new cinema operators, who will co-own and co-design CyberCinema. Through this network there can be a constant exchange of information, enabling events to be held across Europe and films to be premiered simultaneously, thus encouraging the development of a single European film market. The Cyber Centre in Babelsberg will distribute the same programme to all cybercinemas, although cinema owners will have a say in the films to be distributed.

Independent producers in particular stand to benefit from the establishment of these cybercinemas. In terms of the European market, cinema exhibition remains the key economic factor for creators and rights holders, as the success of a film still depends on the welcome or otherwise it receives in cinemas. If a film is not shown in cinemas, it is extremely hard to distribute it in other outlets such as video, DVD, or cable, satellite or terrestrial TV. Film production, which is on the increase, is outpacing the number of available screens on which to show the films which are being made. There is therefore a serious need for the expansion of European distribution and exhibition which will then increase the revenue flowing to producers and distributors, place a greater degree of control over the market into the hands of viewers, return more people to cinemas or other viewing spaces, and reduce losses from video piracy. On a broader front, CyberCinema will constitute a key part of the EU’s information programme Building Europe Together, by uniting European citizens in the enjoyment of shared cultural events, stimulating debates, and helping to overcome the fears and apprehensions that still exist between European citizens. All this exciting project now needs is for the appropriate EU institutions to back its future development.

Carole Tongue is a former MEP and Chair of the European Parliament Cinema/Audiovisual Intergroup. She is President of “Cities and Cinemas Europe”, and a freelance advisor to the CyberCinema project