It's tempting to see digital cinema as a manana technology - perpetually on the horizon but never getting any nearer. The effect is magnified if you count out your life in d-cinema conferences, which have often made a virtue of heated arguments about bafflingly esoteric points. As Arts Alliance Media CEO Howard Kiedaisch puts it: 'If you go to more than two digital cinema conferences a year, you need to get a hobby.'
Nonetheless Screen International's annual conference on the subject this year offered hints at a genuine breakthrough - even in discussions about why digital cinema isn't actually breaking through the deadlock in many countries outside the US (see Box Office, p35).
The debate is at least no longer about whether d-cinema is a good thing. That case hasn't really been won so much as it has become an irrelevance. Not enough people engaged in the real argument over standards when there was time to influence the outcome. Now, for better or worse, the changeover is an inevitability and most of the standards discussion has been completed.
Arguments remain about how a country's entire exhibition infrastructure can shift to the digital age with everyone happy with their share of the pie. Not surprisingly, the process is far from complete - though the US with its more (though not entirely) homogenous system is finding progress easier. But it's worth looking past the 'who pays' argument to consider the impact of what seem like the clear benefits of the d-cinema switch.
Looking back to the 1980s, it seems clear the big upgrade to multiplexes was the saviour of cinema. We may occasionally go misty-eyed about the old town-centre cinema but we're forgetting that the term 'flea pit' wasn't far from the truth. Upgrading the facilities can make a fundamental difference. At a time when box-office growth in most mature film-going countries is flat or driven by ticket prices, there is a strong argument that we need another burst of renewal.
D-cinema's pitch to be the next big thing comes down to these basics:
- Choice: more content and the ability to match what is on screen to customer demand
- Quality: better sound and image without deterioration of the print
- Events: live events beamed to cinemas
- Spectacle: the wow factor in 3D and arguably 4k projection.
- Demographic change: matching content to customer should attract a wider audience.
A growing number of polls suggest the customer is up for it. But digital cinema is not just 35mm in a shiny new box. It may in essence be a replacement technology but what it does is far more disruptive.
The arguments over who pays for the equipment is short term in the sense that someone - probably the studios - will force the issue. At some time soon, it is pretty clear the message from the studios to exhibitors will be: sign a deal, however imperfect, on a payment-sharing model or fund digital switch-over yourself.
But that's just the start. An equally difficult discussion is whether a model can be found that allows the business to take the benefits of d-cinema outlined above without wrecking the industry as it stands.
The way that films are bought and sold, how they are distributed and the rules on how they can be shown are actually a rather delicate arrangement that is already under strain in areas such as release windows.
Take the fundamental promise of d-cinema: the ability to offer real choice matched to customer demand. Something has to shift out to accommodate an event or an alternative film choice, and that isn't the way film has traditionally done its business. If customers are willing to pack the main screen at $50 a pop to watch opera, where does that leave the current programming'
D-cinema offers benefits and it will be adopted, but the idea that it is possible to take the 35mm world and make it work in the same way for digital is surely unrealistic. The current impasse is about trying to square that circle.
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