France Looks Towards Digital Future

Grossing more money in Gaul ($155.90 million as of April 21) than in any other country beside the U.S., Avatar has turned France into Europe's digital frontrunner. UGC, which was initially reluctant to convert its theaters, inked a pact with Ymagis in February to digitize all of its 605 screens, including 373 in France. In April, the country's biggest circuit, Pathe/Gaumont combo EuroPalaces, added four digital Imax screens. CGR Cinemas, a midsize-city operator that started converting its multiplexes in late 2007, is in the process of equipping an additional 150 3D screens. It currently has 404 digital screens, including 250 in 3D.

Getting a head start has paid off for CGR. The group took a 22% share of Avatar 3D screenings in Gaul -- grossing $22 million from some 2 million tickets sold. CGR, like other theater chains in France, charges a premium ticket price for 3D screenings.

"We're reaping the benefits from this raft of 3D blockbusters (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans) because we can meet the heavy demand," says CGR prexy Jocelyn Bouyssy. "But it's a big investment: We have to pay commissions to (third-party facilitator) Arts Alliance Media and royalty fees to Real D."

Meanwhile, MK2, France's top arthouse circuit, signed a deal with Ymagis last September to equip 58 screens by the end of the year. Today, France boosts nearly 1,000 digital screens and at least 710 in 3D.

But while the country's top cinema circuits have been able to finance the digital switch thanks to outfits such as Ymagis and Arts Alliance Media, who offer virtual print fee deals and conversion services, some smaller exhibitors find that model unfeasible. So the CNC, a government-backed film organization, has stepped in to create a digital conversion system that's set to be launched by the end of June.

By Elsa Keslassy, Variety