Subdued CineAsia Spotlights Digital

With the credit crisis, the specter of the Mumbai terror attacks and Thailand's rumbling politics hanging heavy in the air, this year's CineAsia exhibition and distribution convention was subdued. Despite the depressed atmosphere, most presenters at the four-day confab, which ended late Thursday night, stuck strictly to script, actively pushing the digital conversion agenda to Asian exhibitors.

Hollywood majors did their best to convince cinema operators with 2K digital screenings of tentpoles like the Nicole Kidman starrer Australia and Disney's 3-D offering Bolt, plus rough footage from the upcoming Sony release Terminator: Salvation, presented via satellite by helmer McG, a recipient of the confab's Kodak filmmaker of the year nod.

Despite intense tubthumping of d-cinema (four of the six seminars concentrated on digital projection and 3-D technology), there was an undercurrent of impatience from studio and equipment execs on the dawdling rollout of 3-D screens in Asia.

"The whole industry, if it is constrained with too few screens, is going to suffer," said Wes Stalcup, worldwide manager of DLP Cinema Products. "There's going to be money left on the table because either a movie had to be pulled off a 3-D screen for another one coming behind it or the total number of screens that the studios need aren't available."

Asian exhibitors, however, had mixed reactions to 3-D. "We will be providing 3-D in our showcase properties, but we don't see a large penetration of that in the next 24 months," said Tushar Dhingra, chief operating officer of Indian exhibitor BIG Cinemas.

The news for digital conversion was brighter. BIG cinemas announced plans for 500 d-cinema screens in India by 2010, while Hong Kong-based server technology firm GDC unveiled plans to install 6,000 DCI-compliant digital projection systems across Asia under a virtual print fee scheme paid for in part by the Hollywood majors.

Exhibitors pointed to alternative content as a push for converting screens to digital. Robert Ward, director of Australian distributor and exhibitor Filmways, revealed that digital projections of live concert events routinely yielded premiums of $6-$10 over top of normal ticket prices. Naoshi Yoda, managing director of Japanese exhibitor T-Joy, mentioned the live transmission of a concert by Japanese rock band L'arc en ciel, which amassed a 4,000-strong audience in d-cinemas in Japan, as an example of local programming.

Ultimately, however, both exhibitors and distributors agreed that good quality studio content remained the biggest pull for audiences, a view succinctly put by Jeffrey Forman, senior VP of sales and marketing for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Intl.

"We’ve got a lot of really great product coming out, and I think the real winner is the consumer because in the end they get a really great theatrical experience.

By Marcus Lim, Variety