In a potentially groundbreaking move, UK Government support body the Film Council is hatching plans to pour close to $21.8m (£14m) into a nation-wide circuit of up to 250 digital screens.

The move, which would leapfrog the UK to the forefront of the digital era, is aimed at fulfilling the council's brief of expanding the range and accessibility of films on offer to the public.

In return for its investment, the Council aims to ring-fence screens for approved specialist titles. Exhibitors, who are being asked to contribute to costs, would screen whatever they like outside the Council's slots.

The digital initiative is expected to dramatically boost the potential scale of specialist releases. Distributors will provide cinemas with films via HDD5 tape at a fraction of the cost of conventional prints, which are often around $1,250 (£800) each.

The proposed investment is not yet official policy at the Council, which was until recently considering a four-walling scheme whereby screens would be hired from cinemas and dedicated to specialist films.

But Peter Buckingham, the former FilmFour deputy chief who heads the Council's distribution and exhibition fund, is known to favour the digital plan and is consulting the sector about starting rolling out screens as soon as next year.

The move would also make the UK the most digitalised country in the world by some way. By the end of 2002, there were an estimated 161 digital cinema installations at 143 locations around the world, according to Screen Digest.

Digital's programming flexibility, often compared to allowing cinemas to act as broadcasters, would allow more difficult arthouse films such as Russian Ark to go slightly wider. More accessible fare such as Amores Perros, The Devil's Backbone or the Council-backed L'Homme Du Train could double to 40 or 50 prints. On regular occasions, the Council plans on taking over the entire circuit for branded screenings.

For full reaction and analysis see this week's Screen International