Industry Report: Digital
Beaune 2003 - Meetings
Taming the digital dragon
by Fabien Lemercier
- A series of wide-ranging challenges and a lasting political, economic, technological and artistic convergence that brings with it the risk of being completely destroyed. These were the starting points for the Beaune Cinema meetings, organised by ARP. The filmmaker Alain Corneau, as president of this 13th edition of the event, immediately got to the heart of the matter when the debate ensued, with the many professionals attending the discussions. Because the horizons for cinema in France go well beyond the arguments linked to film funding or the distribution “controversy”. There are currently two important questions that have simultaneously led to a re-think about the role of cinema over the next ten years: the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, with 8 out of the ten countries set to join coming from the East, and the digital revolution facing cinema operators.
In the light of these changes, which are the cause of both concern and also an unexplored potential that is still difficult to quantify, the French professionals concentrated more on the current transitional phase.
What is the current state of the film industries in the Eastern European countries? Will they manage to make a positive contribution to the culture of Europe? What is the state of play for cinema operators in the development of the digital sphere? How can Europe exploit the opportunities coming from this new technology, and avoid the risk that it becomes the dominated by Hollywood, a type of terminator of mainstream audiovisual products? These are some of the many points for reflection that will have a bearing on decisions to be now, and which can have a crucial influence on the future.
Taming the digital dragon
“Warning, Danger!”. After entering into production and post-production, digital is now set to change the way cinema operators work. It’s a change that could create irreparable damage to the whole of European cinematography and devastate the work of operators and distributors, who may have to come up against new “players” from the world of information technology and telecommunications, who are ready to get involved in their field of specialisation. It’s a threat that has clearly frightened the director Alain Corneau, who had no hesitation in talking of “the definitive beginning of Big Brother” with the possibility that in the future, films can be distributed contemporaneously across 100,000 European screens in one single click. However, it’s equally true that digital could also provide extraordinary opportunities to improve the circulation of works, as well as leading to huge cost savings. This should force European professionals to realise they shouldn’t miss the digital operation boat. But during the transition period, which will probably continue for the next 2 to 3 years, there’s a risk that the old and the new systems will be operating side-by-side. And in the background there’s still the crucial question regarding the funding of this revolution and all the concerns about piracy and the differences between D-Cinema and E-Cinema. So there were a lot of issues to investigate and contradictions to explore during the round table discussion at the Beaune Film Meetings on October 25.
At the moment, there are only 153 screens out of 165,000 digital cinemas currently up and running in the world, 4 of which are in Britain, 3 in France and Germany, 2 in Spain and 1 in Belgium, Norway and Austria. Today’s digital projection is based on the Digital Light Processing technology, which aims to be at the same quality level as 35mm projections, if not higher, using a palette of 35 billion colours. The important thing is not to confuse digital cinema with E-Cinema, which is a video-projection system with a quality inferior to that of 35mm. For example, E-Cinema has been chosen by the Scandinavian chain, Folkets, to kit out 8 cinemas in areas beyond the Arctic Circle.
The issue of D-Cinema is being widely discussed in France, though the National Federation of French Cinematographers (FNCF) is sitting on the fence. According to its president, Jean Labé, “there needs to be a standard, a single worldwide rule, only one algorithm for encryption, for the compression of the sound and the image, for the electronic interface, for protocols and security”.
There were also other problems highlighted by the leaders of the French operators. Will cinema operators manage to more or less retain control of their own programming, or will they become “film replacers”? And above all, who will fund the equipping of the cinemas and the necessary maintenance of the information and material that will soon become obsolete, and that’s without discussing what the potential benefits are for the audience. These are questions that still have no answers. The cost of equipping a digital projection booth is around €70-75,000 and it’s still not known how long this equipment will last. In comparison, a 35mm projection booth costs around €20,000 and lasts for at least 20 years, so the changeover is seen as a very high cost exercise. It’s also worth mentioning that film professionals are suspicious about the eruption of new companies that don’t have a real cinema culture, for example people who look after servers and satellite transmission systems. Representatives from the American cinema world who were in Beaune, the vice president of the MPAA, Bill Murray and the director, Walter Hill, agreed with the idea that the digital revolution has to come about at a reasonable cost, with common rules controlled by film industry professionals and agreements with operators and distributors to divide the financial burden of the changes. Europe seems to still be a long way behind in this debate, given that 7 Hollywood Majors have already joined together, to form a commercial company called DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative), which will present its conclusions about the question of regulations in March 2004.
Nevertheless the Old Continent is taking action on the question of digital cinemas, and the general surprise is about the action being taken by the independent theatres, who are the first to be launching an equipment programme. The Europa Cinemas chain (1,200 screens) is adopting a pioneering spirit, and thanks to the support of the MEDIA programme, it will be equipping more than 20 cinemas from now until the end of 2004, with around 50-60 digital cinema operations up and running by 2005. According to the director general of Europa Cinema, Claude Eric Poiroux, “we can foresee a better circulation of European films as every operator can sign a contract with the producer (if the film doesn’t have a distributor in the country), resolving the problem of transport thanks to digital (from 20 kilos per copy to 200g for a physical copy or even without using physical distribution, but sending the film via satellite)”. Something to bear in mind is that for this equipment operation, called Project ADN, the European Commission is funding 50% of the digital projector, which the manufacturer Barco will sell in a leasing agreement to the operator.
The second experiment is taking place in Britain where the British Film Council has decided to invest £50 million for digital equipment in 150 cinemas (250 screens) to give a higher visibility to non-American foreign films. According to John Woodward, the director general of the BFC, the aim is to “reduce the very high costs of prints to promote cinematographic diversity”.
These tests are seen as interesting developments by the ARP filmmakers, who stressed the importance of not succumbing to inaction, and not hiding “the risks of concentration and uniformity linked to this new technology”, which must be urgently regulated. This conclusion was shared by people from the rental sector, like Laboratori Eclair and LTC. They warned that the only profitable part of their sector is the linked to the copying of films and that the mass diffusion of films in digital would destroy the French technology used in filmmaking and post-production. With a final warning: that the world of cinema mistrusts the big bad wolves called France Télécom, Barco, Boeing and Microsoft!