The following blog sets out to examine the contemporary circumstances which define cinema since the conversion to digital, examining the issues surrounding this, predominantly from the perspective of those exhibiting films.
Digital cinema has brought about a number of changes in the world of distribution and exhibition. Simultaneously, changes have been occurring in the ways in which audiences consume media, and this has inevitably had a knock-on effect on the cinema industry. Digital projection and distribution has brought about some new methods which are resulting in growth areas for cinemas. A number of these methods will be examined in order to determine how beneficial they are for the cinemas employing them.
In particular, the concept of alternative content will be examined. As a growing area with the potential to succeed at the multiplex and the independently-owned cinema, alternative content is a key area in the field of digital cinema and emerging trends.
The issue of independent cinemas will also be a focus of this essay, as it is one area which has often been overlooked in the race to define the digital changeover as something overwhelmingly positive for cinemas. The issues and problem areas still facing independent cinemas in this digital era will be interrogated and there will be a particular focus on Irish examples, as I set to examine how Irish independents have dealt with, and continue to deal with the digital changeover.
For many, the move to digital heralded a new era of cinema, with many believing that a higher standard of cinema projection would be possible. A report form the Cultural Cinema Consortium, published in 2008, demonstrates this view, suggesting that the changeover would provide cinemas with; “projection systems which can be used to screen new release and specialised films to public audiences at a standard comparable to or better than that achievable with conventional 35mm film”. (Inglis, 6) This also highlights the view that the move digital represented something positive for the cinema industry.
The discussion surrounding digital had also centered around the idea that the change-over has become something of an inevitability, even for those who prefer projecting film prints; “With 2011 the first year more scripted feature films were shot on digital rather than celluloid, even exhibitors intent on screening films in their original format had to face facts: screening in the original format increasingly means screening digital”. (Dombrowski, 235). The predominance of digital in recent years has meant that this is undoubtedly the case; “…even those who prefer film to digital understand that, by 2015, their work, though shot on film, will be distributed in digital copies” (Belton, 131). Belton’s predictions appear to be on track. Last December, Paramount became the first of the major studios to state that they would distributing entirely in digital format from 2014. (Verrier, n.p)
It would appear that cinemas are equally as committed to the prospect of all-digital distribution. Around 84.1% of the world’s cinemas are now digitised, according to international research and analysis company IHS (Gubbins, n.p) while 95% of Irish cinemas are now digitised. (Carlton Screen Advertising, n.p).
Fragmentation of Audiences
While the world of cinema has been getting to grips with the move to digital, a number of changes have been taking place regarding the ways in which audiences consume media, and some of these have threatened cinema attendances. In ‘What is Cinema in a Digital Age?’ Peter Kiwitt suggests that ‘cinema remains a linear rather than interactive mode of expression for the audience’ (Kiwitt, 5). It could be suggested that for audiences, other forms of media challenge this linear experience, and this has resulted in the fragmentation of cinema audiences. The rise of video on-demand platforms has undoubtedly caused a move away from cinema for some audience members.
Findings from a Europa Cinemas Conference, courtesy of Sampo Media, show that “access on many devices to vast stores of film and media content, and the greatly increased competition for leisure time, has created an age divide in media expectation. (Europa Cinema: Renewing Audiences, n.p.) The Europa Cinemas conference highlights the challenges facing cinemas in attracting younger audience members, when there are so many other options available to them; “Older audiences remained loyal to cinema as the place to watch a film but younger Digital Natives were more agnostic, seeing it as a desirable place to see some kinds of film.”(Europa Cinema: Renewing Audiences, n.p.) Melissa Keeping further examines how this trend may be effecting cinema owners; “the growth of Netflix and various streaming options, along with the explosion of online channels, is fragmenting audiences from all age demographics like never before, and making the job of an alternative-content distributor and exhibitor harder all the time” (Keeping, n.p)
Findings from the Irish Digital Consumer Report show this to be the case with Irish audiences, using figures compiled in 2013. “In the age of mobile devices and high speed broadbrand, video on demand platforms are growing to be the preferred way we consume television in Ireland. Video on demand in Ireland is growing quite significantly with a growth of 35% in the past 18 months, especially within the 16-34 year old age group.” Netflix was made available to Irish consumers in 2012, and since then has grown to over 150, 000 subscribers. (O’Leary, 14). With cinema owners facing such challenges, the move to digital could provide them with the opportunity to adopt new models which would draw younger audiences back to the cinema.
Benefits of Digital Cinema
Lisa Dombrowski highlights these, suggesting: “The other primary appeals of digital exhibition for art houses are in how it can increase programming flexibility, both in terms of content and scheduling, as well as operational efficiency” and expands on this, saying: ‘…a theatre can more easily hold on to a film for several weeks and build an audience, or roll it out in any number of release patterns”. She then goes on to state “For “calendar houses” that typically book weeks or even months ahead, this flexibility can help operators nimbly take advantage of unanticipated crowd-pleasers” (Dombrowski, 238).
An Irish example of this can be seen in the Irish Film Institute‘s decision to make changes to their programme. Previously, their programme was scheduled on a monthly basis, but in 2013, they made the decision to adapt it to a weekly schedule, in order to allow for films which were surprisingly popular to screen for as long as there was demand for it. This allows them to pull films which are perhaps not as popular, while allowing others for which there is higher demand than their previous limited run allowed for. “To add a greater degree of flexibility to its outstanding cinema programme, the IFI will be announcing the screening times of its new releases and IFI Classics re-releases on a weekly basis from now on” (Irish Film Institute – IFI to be announced weekly, n.p) This appeals to audiences, who can now have more control over programming in their local cinema, and enjoy more opportunities to see the films they wish to.
Digital projection also facilitates another change which is key to ensuring a flexible programme for cinemas; that of screensharing. Brunel and Mesiano describe how this process works, and benefits cinemas; “ by using a digital projector it is far simpler to screen more than one title – or even alternative content – on the same screen during the day, so as to adapt to the demands of different segments of the public, for example by screening an animated film in the afternoon, without necessarily having to keep it on the evening programme.” (Brunel and Mesiano, n.p.)
This flexibility has also led to a diversification in the type of content cinemas are screening. Event cinema, or alternative content has become a strong growth area within the cinema industry, in particular in recent months, and can be seen as a direct result of the conversion to digital; “Now that almost all cinemas have replaced their traditional tools of 35mm film and mechanical projectors with digital technology, the possibilities for their content has become endless’ (Cookson, n.p)
This concept of alternative concept first entered cinemas in 2006, when the Metropolitan Opera began screening its shows live in movie theatres. (Heyer, 591) It has since been adopted to include live theatre, music and sports shows. In a report commissioned as part of the Cultural Cinema Consortium in 2008, alternative content was already being anticipated as one of the benefits of the conversion to digital projection for Irish cinemas; “Digital projection and ancillary equipment opens up the possibility of screening a diverse range of alternative content, including cultural, sporting and business events” (Inglis, 7) While the Met have been using this method to great success, in particular in North American territories, since 2006, there have been a number of more recent one-off events which have brought attention to the area of alternative content in Europe. In October 2013, screenings of BBC’s Dr Who caused many people within the industry to look again at the idea of alternative content and event cinema. Screened live in cinemas on a Saturday evening (while simultaneously being shown on BBC for free), ‘The Day of the Doctor‘ generated £1.8m from cinema screenings at the British box office, making it “the most successful piece of alternative content ever seen in UK and European cinema’, breaking the box office records for alternative content. (Barroclough, n.p) The Financial Times highlighted the financial implications for the success of an event such as this one; “typical ticket price for Dr Who in cinemas was £12 – almost double the average UK cinema ticket price” (Cookson, n.p). The success of Dr Who demonstrates the growth of this area, one which is predicted to become $1 billion industry worldwide (Szalai, n.p). Alternative content accounted for $112m of global box office revenues in 2010, which was a 51% increase on the previous year’s takings. (“Alternative Content at Cinemas, n.p) In the UK, Rentrak estimated that takings for alternative content reached £20m in 2013. (“Dr. Who Breaks Box Office Records, n.p.) It has also been suggested that another reason for its continued success and development within cinema is that is has been “bringing people back to the cinema who haven’t been in years” (qtd in “Alternative content at cinemas..”, n.p.)
In Ireland, this model has been taken on by cinemas such as the Irish Film Institute and the Light House Cinema. In particular the Light House Cinema in Dublin has embraced the various forms of alternative content, screening live opera, theatre, music from the Berlin Philharmonic, among a variety a cult and classic film screenings and the option to project in 2D and 3D. The cinema re-opened under new management in 2012 – Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe of Irish production company Element Pictures – and has since diversified again to include Volta, a video on- demand service which specialises in independent film, and includes many of the films which have previously screened at the Light House. Describing their approach to programming, their website states;
“In addition to our core specialist programming, we show films that might be considered more ‘commercial art house’ and films that crossover into mainstream cinema when we believe that the film or its talent (writer, director, cast) are of particular interest to our audience. The films we select serve to challenge our audience and encourage engagement with current aesthetic, political, social and cultural issues and trends.” (“Our Programme”, n.p.)
The Light House, as a cinema with only 4 screens, demonstrates how diverse a programme digital projection facilitates, and acts as an example of the ways in which smaller cinemas specialising in independent films can find new ways to attract audiences.
Despite the continued successes for some, there are still some question as to the affordability of this model, and if it is one that can be adopted fully by independent cinemas. There is also the question of how much money is being made by those screening the alternative content, when the party doing so is operating on a smaller scale. There are a number of drawbacks for independent cinemas engaging with alternative content, especially those which are one-off events, similar to ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Melissa Keeping highlights the danger for independent cinemas, saying “One-off events are costly and unpredictable” (Keeping, n.p) while a representative from Cinemalive, a company producing alternative content for cinema, states “A lot of our events are ‘one night only’ yet our costs are the same as sending a feature that will screen for several weeks” (qtd in Dager, n.p). These insights demonstrate the barriers to entry for smaller cinemas who cannot compete with the large multiplexes employing these methods on a much larger scale.
While there are undoubtedly many benefits for cinemas once the conversion takes place, for many of the smaller cinemas, the mere cost of entering into this process is still causing problems. A recent article in the New York times highlighted the issues still plaguing some independent cinemas;
‘Those suffering most from the conversion are independently owned and art-house theatres, which aren’t able to take advantage of the subsidies offered by distributors and don’t qualify for government funding… plenty of small theatres haven’t been able to make the transition; as the industry idiom goes, they’ll soon “go digital or go dark.’
Some independent cinemas struggling to cover the costs of converting were able to do so via funding from platforms such as Kickstarter while others had to close their doors. (Dylan-Robbins, n.p) Without digital projectors going into the future, many of these cinemas will be unable to screen the latest releases, and as such, cannot survive.
As we reach a stage where the production of film prints begins to cease, and the future appears to be predominantly digital for cinemas, the outstanding issues facing smaller independent and art-house cinemas cannot be ignored.
While the growth of alternative content could potentially account of millions in revenue, the benefits of this can not yet be enjoyed by all cinemas. It has also been suggested that perhaps in the rush to fill cinemas with this new alternative content, it will be independent cinema that will lose its place. (Gubbins, n.p) It remains to be seen if this will be the case, or if independent cinemas such as the Light House cinema can find a way to screen independent features alongside popular alternative content.
It is important to highlight the problems facing independent cinemas with regard to the ways in which the cinema industry is changing. While the conversion has meant the loss of some of these cinemas, the change-over and the various issues arising out of it has encouraged discussion surrounding the ways in which these issues can be solved. Lisa Dombrowski highlights the benefits to come out of such issues, saying “the financial challenges inherent to conversion have led to a much wider range of options regarding how digital copies of films will be distributed and exhibited.” (Dombrowski, 235) For Dombrowski, these issues have largely been overcome by the development of more affordable technology, which allows the smaller independent and art house cinemas to engage with the benefits of digital projection.
While concerns about the expense, quality, lifespan, and maintenance costs of digital projection systems have initially given art house exhibitors pause, the arrival of lower-cost alternatives to d-cinema, including affordable HD projection systems, Blu-ray, and the option to use digital cinema servers from content aggregators, have encouraged some speciality exhibitors to consider some form of digital as a viable projection option (Dombrowski, 236)
The most recent findings from Sampomedia suggest that in order for all sectors of the cinema industry to benefit from the improvements brought about by the digital conversion, more discussion needs to take place within the industry. “Flexibility of screening times, new forms of marketing and, most of all, great content might just open up a new world of opportunity. That is a discussion in which producers, rights holders and exhibitors ought to be engaged now.” (Gubbins, n.p)
David Hancock of international research and analysis company IHS (quoted in Gubbins,n.p) also sees some potential for sustained change and improvement within the industry. Hancock suggests that what we were are currently experiencing is the end of the beginning of digital. He goes on to suggest the following three keys for sustainability, going in to the future; 1.) lower cost equipment, 2.) new revenues (including event cinema) and 3.) new models. He also states that “cinemas are only one part of the equation, if Digital Cinema is going to be the engine of a dynamic, diverse and sustainable future for film”, again highlighting the need for discussion and action from all areas of the cinema industry (qtd in Gubbins, n.p).
Despite the issues still facing cinemas, there is good news in the fact that audiences are being attracted to alternative content and more flexible programming schedules. Even with the myriad ways audience can experience media today, for many there is still something attractive about the experience of the cinema. Melissa Keeping highlights this point, stating “the value of being in a cinema with other like-minded people is the cinema’s unique selling proposition” (Keeping, n.p). If recent discussions are to be believed, the financial constraints surrounding digital conversion will be alleviated for smaller cinemas, which will ensure that they too can enjoy the benefits provided by digital. As areas such as alternative content continue to grow, and cinemas enjoy the freedoms afforded by more flexible programming, the hope is that these benefits can be employed by independently-owned cinemas and art-house cinemas who might previously have been excluded.
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