Digital Heads East: China, India and Korea Lead the Conversion Race

Following the lead of the U.S. and European markets, in 2009 digital conversions in much of Asia continue to inch forward, propelled largely on a screen-by-screen basis as justified for specific 3D titles. Broad-based 2D conversions are being held back by their expense, coupled with the weak economy. The exception is China, where the government-supported conversion program continues. In addition, India, Korea and Japan have active conversion programs in progress or being planned.

In China, projector manufacturer Barco announced in mid-2009 that it had completed its 1,000th digital-cinema projector installation. With an early start, Barco claims a market share of more than 80% of the equipped screens. Barco has been working closely since March 2007 with Singapore-based server manufacturer GDC Technology. GDC has secured virtual print fee (VPF) agreements with five studios (Sony Pictures, Disney, Fox, Universal and Paramount) and expects these agreements will accelerate the conversion of up to 6,000 cinemas across Asia.

Barco announced in 2006 a major commitment with Dadi Digital Cinemas. Recently, major deals with Chinese exhibitors like Jinyi Zhujiang Movie Circuit Co., Hengdian Entertainment Co., Ltd. and the China Film Group were announced for another 200 systems.

“With the largest number of installations, which is way ahead of its nearest competitor, GDC and Barco are the undisputed leading digital-cinema solution providers in China,” said Mr. Xu Tianfu, general manager of Hengdian. “We have great faith in GDC and Barco’s vast experience and proven track record, and it is the clear choice for our deployment program.”

Christie’s digital-cinema expansion in China has gathered momentum since 2008, largely as a result of their projectors being used during the Olympic Games. Christie is enjoying digital-cinema growth of more than 400% in the Asia/Pacific region. To date, more than 600 sites in the region have installed Christie digital-cinema projectors, with an additional 500 sites scheduled for conversion by the end of this year.

Working with Beijing Time Antaeus Media Tech. Co., Ltd., Christie provided 120 Christie CP2000-ZX projectors. After the games, these projectors were installed in Time Antaeus’ theatres across China as part of the country’s film-to-digital conversion. With plans to install 800 projectors in select cinemas by the end of 2010, these projectors will be installed with Time Antaeus’ own DCI-capable Montage CDCS2000 servers, jointly developed with Doremi Cinema. The Montage CDCS2000 includes a Theatre Management System (TMS) to allow remote content programming and management and can be remotely monitored by a network operations center.

According to Christie, the pilot test of the 120 projectors has proved to be a tremendous success. Since starting operations, they have experienced “zero” failure rates, offering users a high level of stability. The systems are installed with 3D systems from Dolby 3D, MasterImage, RealD and XpanD. In addition, China’s renowned Shanghai Film Group Corporation and Lianzhong have also selected Christie exclusively for their respective nationwide digital-cinema rollout plans.

Also in China, NEC has been rapidly expanding its Asian cinema business with a commitment from the China Film Group to purchase 160 of its NC1600 digital projectors. The agreement follows an initial 100-projector order that was completed during the spring of 2009. USA-based Ballantyne Strong, Inc. announced that its Strong Westrex China subsidiary has been selected to provide and install the 160 NEC projectors in locations across China. Strong Westrex China expects to ship and install up to half the systems in 2009, with initial shipments anticipated as early as Q3, and expects to ship and install the remaining projectors in 2010.

In India, Scrabble Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. was formed in November 2007 with the vision to provide a 2K DCI-grade release platform to Indian and Hollywood studios. As India’s leading deployment entity, Scrabble has the goal of converting around 200 screens annually until every multiplex in the country is equipped. The company has already contracted with India’s leading exhibitors, producers and distributors, and under a VPF business model, Scrabble plans to finance India’s transition to digital by collecting a negotiated fee from distributors and producers. In this capacity, Scrabble will act as the intermediary between the major studios and distributors and India’s vast number of cinema chains and independent exhibitors.

Scrabble announced its Hollywood alliance in March 2009, and has signed nonexclusive agreements with all the major studios which include Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures. The presence of digital screens will make it easier for film fans in India to enjoy more movies in 3D, which is fast becoming a popular medium. Scrabble is also looking to showcase alternative content and digital advertising.

Ranjit Thakur, CEO of Scrabble Entertainment declares, "We are in process of changing the way movies are shown in India. Going 2K digital is a revolutionary change for the exhibitors in India and the patrons love the experience.”

Thakur believes that the digital release will help both Indian and Hollywood distributors maximize their revenues by providing a much wider day-and-date release and flexibility in show placement at a reasonable cost. The digital transition will also help Hollywood studios release more 3D titles and will also help reduce the effects of piracy from the Indian entertainment sector, which according to the U.S.-India Business Council brings an estimated loss of four billions U.S. dollars per year.

Hollywood contributes less than 10% of the Indian box office, but the percentage is expected to increase in the future. Industry experts feel that there is potential for Hollywood films to rise to over 20% of the Indian market, and certainly going digital with more day-and-date releases is one of the ways for them to get there.

Currently, all the multiplexes in the eight top cities of India collect over 75% of the total Indian box-office collection. By virtue of DCI and JPEG2000 technology, the theatres are happily adapting to the solution that Scrabble offers. Scrabble is pleased with the success they have achieved in a short span of one year.

Christie continues its close collaboration with Scrabble as the preferred projector vendor. So far, Christie has delivered over 200 projectors for Scrabble’s deployment. Christie projectors are now installed in theaters owned by PVR Cinemas, Fame Cinemas, INOX and Fun Theatres across the country.

XpanD, the leader in active-glasses technology, has also entered a strategic partnership with Scrabble targeting a rollout of 100 XpanD 3D screens beginning this November.

Thakur believes that 3D will catch on with Indian audiences depending on the merit of the content. Also, Scrabble is working with Bollywood production houses to create regional and Indian 3D titles.

Scrabble plans to install at least 200 systems each year, so by the end of 2010 there should be 400 screens spread across 40 different sites, each with at least one or two 3D screens. The sites with digital installations have been identified with plenty of marketing materials, so that audiences are aware of the quality differences between them and their analog competitors. Digital has been well-received by the Indian patrons and they recognize the difference in quality. Theatre management also loves the flexibility of shows which the digital platforms provide.

South Korea is in a tight race to become the first fully digitized country in the world. South Korea-based D-Cinema Korea Co. Ltd (DCK), the joint-venture company established in 2008 by CJ CGV and Lotte Cinema, has also announced its own VPF deals with Paramount, Fox and Universal that will launch the deployment of up to 2,000 Korean screens. For the initial deployments, DCK has selected Christie CP2000 series projectors and Qube XP-D servers. It is expected that almost 400 of Korea’s screens will be digital by the beginning of 2010.

Japan has more than 200 DCI-capable systems installed, primarily as a result of the recent flow of 3D titles. Broad conversion plans are being considered by various companies where there is interest in securing VPF studio support that should move things along faster.

Most of the progress in Japan is being driven by one company, T-Joy Ltd., an entertainment organization specializing in the operation of multiple chains as well as the financing and development of digital content. Founded in August 2000 in a partnership with the Toei Company, T-Joy launched as Japan's first multiple digital-cinema complex in Hiroshima. According to T-Joy’s CEO Naoshi Yoda, T-Joy has taken an early lead in Japanese digital cinema and introduced an innovative theatre environment and new dimension of choice to the moviegoers. “We call the next generation in the movie industry an ‘entertainment complex’ and focus on promoting digital cinemas, improvement of digital film technologies and expanding the new and existing digital content.”

Aside from its main operation as standard multiple theatres, T-Joy provides its audiences with various alternative content, such as football matches, extreme sports, musicals, rock concerts, TV programs and many other forms of both real-time and pre-recorded events via digital data-transmission systems.

T-Joy currently owns 119 screens at 13 sites, of which 43 screens are currently equipped with DCI-grade digital projectors. Fourteen of these are equipped with 3D. With two new multiplexes opening in Yokohama and Kyoto, T-Joy will operate a total of 68 digital screens by spring 2010. For the future, T-Joy is planning only fully digital sites, with at least two 3D screens per site. T-Joy has also signed agreements with Sony to add screens featuring Sony’s 4K projectors beginning next July. T-Joy through their subsidiary company, Laterna Co., has also made a joint venture with Korea’s CJ Entertainment for future investments and the distribution of Korean digital titles in the Japanese market.

The rest of Asia, specifically, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines, is deploying digital equipment as needed to take advantage of the increased 3D revenues. In these cases, most exhibitors are self-funding their own conversions or working in conjunction with one of the vendors or deployment entities that have secured studio-approved VPF plans.

Down Under, exhibitors in Australia and New Zealand have installed enough 3D systems to support the current Hollywood 3D movie slate and key exhibitors, specifically Hoyts, Greater Union, Village Roadshow and Reading, are finalizing their own VPF plans. It is expected that over 300 digital systems will be in place by the beginning of 2010, with a full rollout beginning mid-2010.

By Bill Mead, Film Journal International