Given the slow pace of change in European digital cinema, there is a danger in over-hyping any kind of movement. But a $56m investment in leading UK and France-based D-cinema business Arts Alliance Media (AAM) may prove significant.
The money from European services company Econocom and various private investors will allow the completion of a 400-screen conversion of French chain Circuit George Raymond (CGR). It is also a vote of confidence in AAM's expansion plans. The completion of the CGR deal, announced in 2007, is potentially important, based as it is on the cost-sharing virtual-print fee (VPF) model.
"This is the breakthrough we've been waiting for," says AAM chairman and founder Thomas Hoegh. "This is the first major chain (in Europe) to see the VPF-powered installation completed. These contracts can now be seen to work.
"The most significant thing is that the contracts work and if they work now in this economic environment, they will work in any environment."
Hoegh believes the fact a bona fide deal has been completed might make a big impact, proving deals can be done. The question then is whether the ponderous nature of European rollout can be changed.
AAM's belief that we are now turning a corner is tempered to an extent by the fact it has spent so long seemingly on the brink of the big deal that would break the deadlock.But announcements have been thin on the ground. The company wisely is not over-promising on specifics despite rumours of at least one major deal at an advanced stage.
Making the shift
Hoegh is certain the CGR deal will have helped the business to think about making the shift sooner rather than later. "There are chains looking very specifically at this deal to see if we can pull it off," he says.
Timing is a critical issue. There are a number of factors with the potential to drive the D-cinema timetable forward. Most obvious is the availability of quality product, particularly 3D. The Hollywood majors have made a big investment in 3D next year yet at the moment there are few screens on which the films can be shown.
The move has also allowed at least a temporary shift in the agenda from a long-running debate about whether the current payment models could take along smaller cinemas. There are fears smaller chains might face closure around Europe because they cannot afford to make the switch.
While the issue is important, it has distracted attention from what D-cinema can bring to the exhibition sector. AAM, for example, has been among the pioneers of live opera.
Forward momentum is necessary because change was desperately slow, even before the onset of an economic downturn that is even slowing US change.
After a grinding period of debates that often descended into the most esoteric bickering, there were reasons for optimism a couple of years ago. The DCI set of standards governing the interoperability, security and quality of D-cinema was finally, and sometimes grudgingly, accepted.
A new cost-sharing model - VPF - was also looking like the only realistic financing option even if it was not met with universal enthusiasm. Some governments were also playing a positive role, notably the creation of the UK's digital screen network in which AAM played a critical role.
AAM won US studio support for its VPF-based plans, yet exhibitors in Europe have kept their hands in their pockets. Indeed, there remains some convincing to do in core markets beyond the UK and France.
Intriguingly, AAM's Howard Kiedaisch wants there to be an understanding that there is a place for all cinemas in the big tent. Details are not clear but it certainly means looking beyond the current VPF deal.
'No cinema is too small and no country too remote,' seems to be the new mantra.
This is not simple altruism. AAM needs to take along a critical mass of screens into a D-cinema future in which it can take a leading role. The announcements may not have changed the game but it may at least have forced the pace.