D-cinema Lags in Latin Region

Latin American exhibitors aren't holding their breath for the digital revolution. Only 50 or so theater screens in the region have been converted to what Hollywood considers movie-quality digital projectors, though more positively, nearly all of those installations are equipped with 3-D capability.

Worse, nobody predicts 2009 will be a watershed year for digital conversions in the region. Throughout much of the rest of the world, it is assumed some auditoriums in most major markets soon will boast digital systems, but Latin America will remain a 35mm world for the foreseeable future.

Here's why:
- The major studios don't spend as much to distribute film prints in Latin America because of lower costs and fewer releases. Therefore, they are less inclined to subsidize the rollout of digital systems in the region.

- The existing base of digital screens is so scattered among regional markets that they tend to be only in the most lucrative venues. That makes it more difficult to claim that digital clearly is boosting revenue, which would be helpful in spreading the digital gospel to smaller markets.

If prospects of a rapid conversion to digital seem faint regionally, it is perhaps equally notable that Latin American theater circuits have proved enterprising in their ability to tap other funding sources in the face of resistance by the major studios. Panelists at an opening-day session during the ShowEast exhibition confab said "screen sponsorships" seem the way to go.

Telecom companies and others have shown an encouraging willingness to pay as much as 100% of installation costs in return for naming rights on digital screens for one or two years, Cine Hoyts general manager Heriberto Brown said.

But National Amusements vp international Mark Walukevich said even those efforts are constrained by studios' unwillingness to offer digital versions of movies because of the region's low digital-screen count.

"We want to make these screens strictly digital -- we don't want to have to install 35mm equipment next to the digital projector -- but right now, the content doesn't allow that in Latin America," Walukevich said.

But there have been other promising signs, according to members of the panel, moderated by Bill Mead of the Web site DCinemaToday.

Warner Bros. senior vp international distribution Thomas Molter said his studio saw 30% of its regional boxoffice for Journey to the Center of the Earth from 3-D screens.

"It's truly a testament to the fact that digital does work," he said.

By Carl DiOrio, The Hollywood Reporter