European Screens Slow to Turn 3-D

"Frustratingly slow" is how Paramount Pictures Intl. president Andrew Cripps sums up the progress toward digital exhibition and 3-D in Europe. Like other studio toppers with major 3-D releases on their 2009 slates, Cripps has good reason to be concerned. He has How to Train Your Dragon coming up at Christmas and Monsters vs. Aliens next March, but there simply won't be enough screens ready in Europe to maximize their upside.

"I don't think any 3-D movie is going to fulfill its potential in 2009 because of the slow rollout of 3-D screens around the world," Cripps argues.

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has traveled repeatedly to major markets to persuade foreign exhibs of the huge potential benefits of 3-D. According to PPI's exec VP of distribution Roger Pollock, "People are completely blown away by his presentation, and then it goes quiet again and nothing happens."

"When these big 3-D movies arrive next year, there will suddenly be a mad rush by exhibitors to get digital into their cinemas, and then there will be a shortage of equipment because they are all trying to get it at once. It won't happen as strategically as we would have liked," Pollock predicts.

Latest figures from Screen Digest suggest Europe had 815 digital screens at the end of 2007, up from 532 a year earlier. Of these, only 174 were 3-D equipped, up from just 10 at the end of '06. The U.K. leads the way with around 300 digital screens thanks to U.K. Film Council subsidy, while Germany leads in commercially funded digital, with 135 screens. Thanks to Kinepolis, little Belgium ranks third in Europe's digital chart with 65 screens, but major territories such as France, Spain and Italy lag.

Several studios have signed up for rollout initiatives from digital specialists Arts Alliance and XDC, but these have yet to win significant support from exhibitors. These deals are both based on the virtual print fee (VPF) model, under which distribs split the bill with exhibs to pay for the installation of digital equipment. The Arts Alliance deal was launched at Cinema Expo a year ago and is backed by Paramount, Universal, Fox, Sony and Disney, yet has only attracted one major exhib so far, France's CGR, which has started the digital conversion of its entire 400-screen loop.

XDC unveiled its alternative offering this May at Cannes, with support from Paramount, Fox, Disney and Warner, and talks advanced with Universal and Sony, but it has yet to announce any exhibitor deals. Some analysts hope the arrival of XDC as a competitor to Arts Alliance will finally spur exhibitors into action.

Individual exhibs such as Odeon are conducting their own digital testing in certain sites, but these efforts remain sporadic, experimental and thus far only marginal in their impact on the market. It looks like most European audiences will have to settle for watching next year's slew of big 3-D blockbusters the old-fashioned way, in two dimensions.

By Adam Dawtrey, Variety