A group of European distributors is banding together to give documentaries wider theatrical play through use of digital exhibition technology.

The initiative, European DocuZone (EDZ), will link distributors, institutions and some 175 screens in eight countries to create a digital network capable of giving documentary films simultaneous releases across the region. It will kick off in September 2004 with full partners in The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Scotland, Austria, Slovakia, Spain and Portugal and a slate of 12 films.

"We need to carve out a separate space for specialist film and to protect and promote European culture," said Kees Ryninks, head of documentaries at the Netherlands Film fund, who with Bjorn Koll of German distributor Salzgeber & Co, is the project's initiator.

EDZ is an extension of the DocuZone organisation, which Ryninks launched in The Netherlands in February last year with ten art-house theatres.

Unlike DocuZone, which projects films from specially-prepared DVDs, EDZ will use central servers and play out the films to MPEG2 high definition standards. The local distributor-exhibitors will equip themselves with digital projectors appropriate to their individual markets. "In Portugal where there is less of a documentary tradition I would expect them to buy the minimum necessary equipment. Here in The Netherlands we will go for the best we can. The important thing is having compatible servers. We are talking about 'e-cinema' here, not full 'd-cinema'."

Ryninks envisages creating major events around the films by streaming live introductions before film and simultaneous Q&As afterwards. "This does not need to stop with documentaries. It is intended for specialist films of all sorts, from documentaries, to experimental films and packages of shorts." Individual distributors will also be able use the system to programme packages of local content.

Initially, rights will be licensed in the normal way from producers or sales agents for each territory, but Ryninks hopes that as the structure develops they will operate in a more co-ordinated fashion. " We need people to think long-term and come up with solutions to the problems facing European film; one answer may be to arrive at a central system of buying rights."