The international markets are beginning to exert pressure on how business is done in a way that was once the sole preserve of the US domestic market - but there's still room for growth, says Michael Gubbins
There's a bitter joke among the residents of Brittany in France about the oil tanker crashes that pollute their coast every few years. 'We'd be a major oil nation if only we knew how to pick it up.'
The Breton conundrum springs to mind when looking at the rapid growth of the international market in recent years (see links left) - and the figures are phenomenal.
The international markets are beginning to exert pressure on how business is done in a way that was once the sole preserve of the US domestic market. The domination of global blockbusters at one end and niche local-language product at the other is an international creation.
The resulting theatrical squeeze has pushed out a great many middle-ranking films, generally US or internationally focused films looking for life beyond their borders.
What's more impressive is the room for growth. This year's PricewaterhouseCoopers Outlook report predicts tiger-like growth in the emerging economic superpowers of China, India, Russia and Brazil. Each one is increasingly tied into the international infrastructure via co-productions, sales or finance. Last year, for example, 11 Indian or India-focused companies raised more than $1bn on the AIM markets, with much more expected this year.
So one might expect a great deal of whooping and hollering among exhibitors at next week's Cinema Expo get-together in Amsterdam.
The mood will, of course, be much more circumspect. We are back to the Breton puzzle - no-one can deny the figures, but catching the boom buzz is tougher.
Exhibition is perhaps in a unique situation. It is a peaks-and-troughs business, dependent on the quality of products over which it is has little control.
This week in Spain, cinema owners' frustration spilled over into a strike affecting some 93% of theatres. Their argument is with a planned government law that would restrict the number of Hollywood films they can show. Along with other recent protests over DVD release windows, there's a feeling of a business under siege.
It's not universal. There is a natural split between those for whom the popcorn bucket is half full and those for whom it is half empty. But it's not always easy to catch the sense that we are in a period of renewal, reinvigorated not just by international market growth but by new digital technologies.
One can see the point about not getting over-excited. It was just two short years ago when miserable 2005 figures led to a widespread feeling that cinema was being abandoned by a new media society. A combination of pirates, reckless distributors and digital revolutionaries had all but put the poor old dear in its grave.
While it is widely recognised now that reports of cinema's death were exaggerated, it's a bit much to expect the bunting to come out over every optimistic announcement.
The truth is that the macro-economics of international growth can be exploited by relatively few businesses. Even the studios have not found it easy to turn extended reach into a surefire return on investment.
For the individual exhibitor, one's needs are short term. Russia may be expanding and the domestic market may be dwarfed but the individual cinema owner needs the concession stand to be shifting the candy.
The development of a multi-layered dynamic market remains critical to their fortunes nonetheless.
The challenge for exhibition in most territories is to increase the total number of cinema-goers. Taking advantage of favourable markets, as our Breton friends point out, is easier to deal with as a global giant, whether in oil or film.
But lateral thinking and teamwork are essential if the benefits are to spread widely across the industry.