One of the strongest messages to emerge at this week's Cinema Expo conference in Amsterdam is that the growing influence of the internet - particularly among cinema's prime audience of 14 to 19-year-olds - is driving distributors towards global release dates.

Driving the point home was a screening of Sony Pictures Entertainment's tent-pole summer release The Patriot which opens July 4 weekend in North America followed by a rapid international roll out. Tony Manne, executive vice president of international marketing and distribution for Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International (CTFDI), announced that the same strategy will be used for four of the studios upcoming pictures: Hollow Man, Charlie's Angels, Sixth Day and Vertical Limit.

"This is now our policy and we are committed to giving international territories more simultaneous release dates," Manne said.

Manne told Screen International that he expects about five or six movies a year to open overseas within two to four weeks of the US release date: "These films will be event movies that have a built-in awareness, particularly through information via the internet."

Manne added "This is a policy for the whole company - from the production execs through to distribution, especially because subtitling and dubbing will have to be dealt with on a much quicker basis."

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), agreed that the dramatic growth of internet penetration worldwide is a major factor in closing the gap in release schedules.

"International marketing for movies has changed dramatically with the internet," Fithian said. "Movie-goers in Europe and around the world become aware of Hollywood films as soon as they hit the US market. This awareness serves to shrink the international release windows."

Fithian also cited digital cinema as a factor driving simultaneous worldwide release dates: "The most important issues today are driven by technology, and technology transcends national boundaries," Fithian said. He urged exhibitors worldwide to "come together to share information and create strength through unity".

But at least one independent distributor was less than enthusiastic about the new world order. "For real independents, this will be a problem," said Dirk de Lille, executive vice president of RCV Entertainment. "We will lose two things: the ability to judge the release in our territory on the back of the film's US performance and our p&a costs will go sky-high as we often use second-hand prints and advertising materials."

The growth of multiplex building in southern Europe - resulting in an extended 12-month box office season - is also speeding up the introduction of global release dates. Steve Knibbs, senior vice president of United Cinemas International (UCI), which recently opened its first multiplex in Italy, is keen to see more global release patterns along the lines of UIP's roll out of Gladiator and Mission: Impossible 2. Knibbs is confident this will come: "the one thing that will change release schedules forever is digital cinema rolling out over the next five years."