Most films will be distributed in digital format within the next five years, which might be good news for cinemas, but it also has serious implications for Europe's film heritage.

That is one of the key conclusions of a new European Commission (EC) report measuring European Union (EU) progress in preserving cinema heritage for future generations.

The report urges European Member States to prioritise the challenges presented to film heritage by the digital era. These include potential access problems in the face of rapidly changing technology, as well as concerns about the shelf life of digital material.

The findings follow up the EC Recommendation on Film Heritage to Member States in 2005, which highlighted the cultural and economic importance of collecting, preserving and restoring European films.

At that time, the EC described film heritage as 'an important component of the film industry' claiming that action to promote the preservation of that heritage could 'contribute to improving the competitiveness' of the industry.

Three years on, the report shows mixed progress across the EU and pinpoints rapidly evolving digital technology as presenting as many problems as it solves in terms of opportunities for preserving film heritage.

The report highlights the positive role of new digital distribution channels in providing new markets for heritage content, in particular, helping to reach young audiences. It also acknowledges that digital technology has an important contribution to make to the successful restoration of old films.

However, as the report also points out, the storage and conservation of digital material presents its own problems that must be urgently addressed if the preservation of Europe's film heritage is to succeed.

While the industry is familiar with the shelf life of various types of film, the long-term shelf life of digital remains unknown. In addition, rapidly changing file formats and players mean that without ongoing conversion, digital material may not be easily viewable in even the near future.

Although several countries have followed EC recommendations and made plans to digitise existing collections as part of their preservation activities, others are not convinced. Sweden -for example -has declared that it will not be digitising its collection as there is currently no long-term means of preserving digital material.

Other issues highlighted by the report include the lack of professional training in film preservation across Europe; non-interoperability of databases; and intellectual property rights issues that affect access to material, particularly via the internet.

So while there seems to be widespread recognition that film heritage needs to be preserved, the means of doing so remain problematic.