Independent cinema versus corporate America was the underlying theme of a big set-piece debate at the Rotterdam festival yesterday (Sun 25 Jan).
The discussion on digital cinema and its potential threats to conventional film-making took the form of a parliamentary debate, a format which inevitably produced colourful language and a spirit of embattlement among European delegates.
The motion "this house believes that the digital dream will destroy cinema as we know it" was proposed by Bjorn Koll, of German distributor Salzgeber and e-cinema pioneer EuroDocuzone, and UK filmmaker Bernard Rose. Opposers were Pete Buckingham of the UK Film Council and Eric Lagesse of French sales house Flach Pyramide International.
The debate was introduced by keynote speaker Mahamat Sales Harounat, a Chad-born film-maker responsible for Bye Bye Africa and Abouna, who said that his career had been enabled by digital cinema, but that the medium is still not given meaningful status. "We find ourselves between Hollywood and Bollywood," he said.
In a stirring speech, Rose likened the actions of MPAA's Broadcast Protection Discussion Group to Thomas Edison's historic cartel to protect motion picture camera equipment. "Their underlying message is: 'The moment Windows digital rights management technology takes hold is the end of our control'," he said. "Digital cinema will destroy cinema as we know it because it will end the 100 year reign of the MPAA, one the most pernicious organisations of our time."
In a seemingly schizophrenic mood, Buckingham said: "international is the problem area. Digital means globalisation, simultaneous releasing and piracy. It means that independents will have to react by getting organised, learn new marketing methods." But Buckingham also argued that "independents don't have to change [our] business models. Digital distribution is democratic it levels the playing field."
Koll too, who is a pioneering satellite distribution of documentaries in eight European territories, also seemed in divided mood: "digitalisation is our last chance in Europe to destroy current cinema hierarchy. On one hand it could mean the Majors completely take over the market; on the other it could bring about a wide selection of European films at cinemas."
"Digital is rarely expressed as a priority by my clients. I have the impression that distributors and sales agents have been putting off a decision on digital," said sales agent Lagesse. But he also explained: "Five years ago we did not know how to deal with DVD rights. Nowadays nobody will buy a film from me unless the DVD rights are attached. Today the same question concerns internet rights; do we try to hold back those rights for the producer or sell them with vague conditions that 'freeze' their usage'"
Views from the audience were typically eclectic. While one questioner suggested that suggested that Microsoft distribution software was being deliberately denied to independents who could profit from it in the name of cultural diversity others suggested that it has already been destroyed. Rod Stoneman, former head of the Irish Film Board said: "over the years marketing has shifted popular taste and already destroyed cinema diversity." He cited screenings in Pasadena where a European animated film was rated by test audiences and then re-screened with the Disney logo. The Disney screening produced higher scores.
The motion was eventually carried by 62 votes to 44 against.