By Jason Silverman | Also by this reporter Page 1 of 2 next »
02:00 AM Dec. 18, 2004 PT
Marquees at the average British multiplex don't look much different from those in any American suburb. The same Hollywood blockbusters are now playing in London, Leeds and Louisville.
Look at the stats: All of the U.K.'s top 20 highest-grossing movies in 2003 were American productions or co-productions. Films produced or co-produced by U.S. studios accounted for 94 percent of the British box office.
So how does a country encourage audiences to check out specialized films? One solution: Go digital.
The Digital Screen Network, an initiative of the U.K. Film Council, is providing government funds for installation of digital projectors in commercial theaters. The program will disburse an estimated $25 million to install approximately 250 digital projectors in theaters throughout the United Kingdom. (By comparison, there are currently about 120 digital projectors in U.S. movie houses.) Applications for funding closed Dec. 10.
The words "studio," "Hollywood" and "American" are conspicuously absent from the project's prospectus, and the project's manager, the U.K. Film Council's Peter Buckingham, denies that the project is a counterattack on Hollywood.
Instead, Buckingham described the Digital Screen Network as "pro, not anti" -- designed to support the home-grown, foreign and art-house films that have gone missing from British screens.
Buckingham hopes the Digital Screen Network can circumvent some of what he calls "in-built structural barriers," especially the high cost of creating and circulating 35-mm film prints.
"If you only have 50 prints as opposed to 400, you have no economies of scale," said Buckingham, the head of exhibition and distribution for the U.K. Film Council. "You can't get promotional partners and you can't do nationwide promotional schemes because your film is showing only in London. Press don't take notice of you because you are London-centric."
The Digital Screen Network, he said, will offer distributors and exhibitors an escape hatch from that 35-mm trap. Today, if you want to show the new Mike Leigh or Ken Loach film in an out-of-the-way theater, you'll likely need to wait until a print is released from a big-city art house.
Once the digital projectors are installed, the owners will be able to rely on movies recorded on cheap-to-replicate digital media. Smaller films that were once limited to a handful of theaters will soon be able to open simultaneously on 250 screens.
It's win-win for distributors, who can cut costs, and for theaters, which will have a greater range of films to choose from and more flexibility in scheduling.
The digital projectors that the Film Council is funding won't just show specialized films (George Lucas will be glad to know that British audiences will be able to see Star Wars: Episode III in digital form).
But members of the Digital Screen Network must commit to showing a certain percentage of art-house and offbeat material, including archival and educational movies provided by the U.K. Film Council.
Brit Film Future Is Digital
There's no doubt that the Digital Screen Network is an innovative, even radical, program. But will it work? If you build digital movie houses, will they come?
"I think it has every chance of succeeding," said John Wilkinson, the head of the Cinema Exhibitors' Association, a trade organization representing 92 percent of British theater owners. "I don't think it will be an easy ride, and it will take a long time. But in the medium to long term it should bring benefits to exhibitors and general public."The Digital Screen Network also may serve as a test run for 21st-century cinema. In the not-too-distant future, most experts agree that the movie industry will grow increasingly decentralized. Films will flow to audiences from a variety of distributors and producers and through digitally enabled theaters.
One key to success of the digital cinema is avoidance of technological balkanization. VHS, with its various formats, and now DVDs, limited by regional protections, are hard to share across borders.
Charles Swartz, executive director and CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California and a former writer and producer, says celluloid-based cinema -- though far more expensive than digital alternatives -- retains one huge advantage: Theaters around the world are able to play the same 35-mm print.
"If digital cinema is rolled out with a single global standard, one of the benefits will be encouraging an open pipeline from all around the world," said Swartz.
"It won't matter if you were a big multiplex in Paris, France, or a small theater in Bangalore, India," Swartz added. "You'll still be able to play those movies wherever they came from, whether it's a small independent company or a Hollywood studio."
Swartz warns that digital cinema does not mean exhibition and distribution will become a playground for off-Hollywood interests. Advertising and marketing will remain a huge expense for any release, and smaller companies will need to be creative in hooking up their films with audiences.
Still, the Digital Screen Network is a prototype worth watching. Other European countries, along with China (the China Film Group has committed to the installation of 166 digital projectors), are surely keeping their eyes on the program.
The Digital Screen Network may even help answer one of the global entertainment industry's enduring questions: Do filmgoers flock to Hollywood movies because they prefer them, or because there is little else to choose from?
Wilkinson hopes that given freedom of choice, British audiences will demonstrate a broad cinematic palette. If they do, count on the Digital Screen Network becoming a model for other countries. Any governments concerned with the Hollywood-dominated status quo might soon be passing around digital projectors.
"I believe this initiative will set the ground rules for all of Europe, if not the United States and around the world," Wilkinson said. "It is innovative, and I think in the end it will aid film exhibition and create a more diversified audience."