A potential breakthrough in the 'who pays'' deadlock that has stunted digital cinema rollout is unveiled today at Cinema Expo in Amsterdam.

Digital distribution pioneer Arts Alliance Media (AAM) has reached an agreement with Universal Pictures International and Twentieth Century Fox to offer Europe's virtual print fee (VPF), which could cover up to 7,000 screens.

The studios have also committed themselves to distribute digital content to theatres signing up in countries including the UK and Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, the Nordic region and the Benelux. Other studios are expected to follow soon.

The VPF is a means of financing conversion in which distributor andexhibitor contribute over a period of years to installing the necessaryequipment for making the digital shift.

Exhibitors are subsidised by distributors in installing equipment while distributors can make substantial savings in the cost of prints.

Until now, the argument about who should pay for installation of equipment has been a major stumbling block in Europe, while the US has marched ahead.

Such deals have been largely theoretical outside the US because the distributors, exhibitors and technology providers were unsure how much they would benefit from the new digital economics.

AAM chief executive Howard Kiedaisch told Screen Daily, those days may be drawing to a close.

'Up until now the discussions have been theoretical. But now we have something solid to offer exhibitors.'

What remains open to question is whether exhibitors will sign up, though the participation of major studios is likely to make a difference, breaking another of the concerns of cinema owners about the availability of studio content.

AAM is engaged in active negotiations with other studios including Buena Vista International and Paramount Pictures International.

Kiedaisch said AAM's role as an integrator able to offer economies of scale took the pressure of individual exhibitors.

'Cinemas cannot take time to negotiate individually when they are focusing on their core business rather than equipment change. They should let us take the pain.'

He said the deal was the result of around 18 months negotiations and for the first time represented a concrete deal for theatre owners

And he said he expected other studios to sign up in the near future. 'This does not preclude another contract in future.'

He said he hoped the deal would shift attention to the 'real issue which is the opportunities that digital offers.'

Julian Levin, Executive Vice President, Digital Exhibition and Non-Theatrical Sales and Distribution, Twentieth Century Fox echoed the theme that it was time for the digital cinema debate to shift attention to what it could offer customers: 'The image quality, content, security and distribution/exhibition efficiencies, including 3D exhibition, offered by digital projection clearly exceeds 35mm film.

'We are delighted to have closed this arrangement with our colleagues at Arts Alliance Media who have the experience and technical expertise to manage this process.'

And Duncan Clark, Executive Vice President of Universal Pictures International added:'The digital world is the future, and we as a studio are committed to its continual and sustained growth. We look forward to supplying our movies to this new digital platform and, along with audiences, reaping the rewards by continuing to enhance the theatrical experience.'