The announcement of a major European financing deal for digital cinema put the proverbial cat among the pigeons at this week's Cinema Expo in Amsterdam.

To be fair, the virtual print fee (VPF) agreement announced by Arts Alliance Media, Fox and Universal Pictures International didn't need to be the fiercest of felines. Over the last few years in Europe, the description 'headless chickens' might have been more ornithologically exact than pigeons.

Europe once had real ambitions to lead the way in digital cinema. The more enthusiastic advocates at the start of the process used to talk about shifting the balance of power away from Hollywood.

Such ambitions would always have been a tall order given the fragmented nature of the European business and the fact that for many exhibitors, the studio stranglehold is more of a loving embrace. But Europe has simply thrown away a great many of the advantages it had. Europe needs D-cinema but the interminable debate about DCI standards has been an object lesson in navel-gazing. While Europe talked, other territories got on with it.

The US is not, despite the hype, streaking ahead but it's pulling away from Europe because its roadmap is clear. Certainly, one can see economies of scale shifting into place in the US through which, for example, the rapid growth of 3D cinema might become a reality.

China, India and other parts of Asia are at least thoroughly engaged in the process.

Latin America might also be in that group. Early adopters in countries such as Brazil have expanded. There are many blots on the landscape - not least in the fears of those Latin American pioneers that they will see their work bulldozed by heavy-handed insistence on a narrow set of screening standards.

No-one can deny the substance at the heart of many disagreements about digital cinema. How the little independent cinemas in smaller European countries are going to survive in the digital future remains a serious issue. There's no model yet that can really encapsulate the interest of the whole cinema business.

Such problems may be an issue for national governments but perhaps the expectation of public intervention is proving a roadblock to growth in Europe. A number of exhibitors this week commented that they were worried they could sign up for the current VPF deal when taxpayers might end up footing a big part of the bill.

That seems a highly unlikely scenario. The brave digital screen network initiative in the UK is perhaps the best known intervention thus far, but that was about kick starting a process, not footing the bill long term. Governments are not going to be keen to support a process that is meant to reduce costs for exhibitors and distributors.

The VPF deal is untested. It has set aside some of the difficulties of D-cinema for future resolution rather than solved them. But there's one thing about the agreement that must be universally welcomed... it's real. It's ink on paper; it's figures in a spreadsheet. After years of the same dreary discussion about who will pay for change, here's one answer.

It proves that distributors are willing to financially support exhibition in the switch to digital and to securely provide product in a non-exclusive deal.

Is it the best of all possible deals in the best possible world' Nope. Is it a good deal when you get through the fine print' That remains to be seen. Are there better alternatives' Well, let's see them to compare.

A strong box office in 2007 should not drown out that nagging tick-tock: the competition for customers' time grows tougher every day. It's surely better for Europe to address problems while moving along the digital cinema track than to sit perpetually on the start-line.

Do you agree' Email or