One of the world's largest-scale experiments has suggested strong audience demand for digitally restored archive material.

The UK Summer of British Film season, organised by the UK Film Council and the BBC, showed classic films at 136 theatres signed up to the National Digital Cinema network. Audiences across the country were given the chance to see seven films released through Park Circus or Optimum Releasing: The Dam Busters, Goldfinger, Brief Encounter, Withnail & I, Henry V, The Wicker Man and Billy Liar.

Screen International's Digital Cinema conference this week heard box office performed well in most places. The films went out on Tuesday evenings during the summer, mustering box office of $360,000 (£180,000) on admissions of 62,604, with an average attendance of 70 per screening.

Audience reaction after screenings of Park Circus' Goldfinger and Optimum's The Dam Busters was very positive, said Peter Buckingham, head of distribution and exhibition at the UK Film Council, who admitted he had been unsure of the response. "It proved that people want a wide choice of films on the big screen, even if those films are available on DVD," he said. What is more, he suggested, the experiment had whetted appetites for further digital screenings. "Where people know about a film being shown digitally, they say they are more likely to go, especially if they are younger and male," he explained.

The evidence of one series is not definitive proof of broader consumer appetite but it does fit in with other recent studies, which show interest in digital screenings.

A study from market researcher OTX, for example, found 43% of respondents said improved sound and image quality would encourage them to go to the cinema more often. Though a caveat here is that the same survey showed 88% saying they already thought the picture quality was very good or excellent. The appetite for 3D film is even greater - more than 70% said they were very interested in seeing films in the format.

While such surveys monitor audiences that have little experience of actual digital screenings, the results encourage optimism.

Potential interest in digital screenings, particularly during off-peak periods, is one of digital cinema's greatest promises, Bud Mayo, CEO of digital cinema pioneer Access IT, told the conference. "Nobody is in a theatre, for the most part, Monday to Thursday," he said. "We believe digital cinema, in addition to better sound and image quality, can enable those empty seats to be filled by providing many more choices and scheduling possibilities."

Alternative screening options, he said, included "music concerts, sporting events ethnic and religious events and lecture series ... In fact any form of entertainment you find in an arena anywhere in the world will find its way into your screens at off-peak hours that are attractive."

A small amount of such supplementary activity could bring big results: a 1% increase in admissions in Western Europe alone would generate revenues of $600m, he said.

The non-film future

Other speakers offered case studies of experiments in non-film content. Mark de Quervain, sales and marketing director at UK cinema chain Vue, said the company has experimented with live concerts and is planning a comedy show. "We're in a learning process, finding out what works and what does not," he said of early efforts, such as a concert this year by veteran rock group Genesis. It pulled in customers, but de Quervain conceded it was a huge effort to produce and it was not clear how future global releases would work out.

He estimated that live events and other non-film activity would account for 1%-3% of business.

The potential for charging a premium rate for such content remains one of the more attractive promises of digital cinema, and there are proven cases of customers willing to pay. Marc John, head of digital development at the UK's Picturehouse chain, said an opera season from the Met in New York had packed out theatres, both at an initial $25 (£12.50) and the subsequent $50 (£25). "People did not bat an eyelid at higher prices and cinemas said they not only attracted usual cinema-goers but new people."

The idea that audiences may pay more for off-peak special screenings is exciting interest but outside the US it has not been enough to break through arguments about payment and business models.

The general feeling of the conference was that Evidence of demand will be best demonstrated by accelerated rollout.

- See People, p14.