UK film distribution guide
Practically since the birth of cinema at the end of the 19th century, films have been produced, circulated and screened on celluloid stock.
More recently, digital soundtracks have enhanced the audio experience, while computer graphics imagery (CGI) is often added in post-production to realise spectacular effects. Today, most films are edited and mastered on digital equipment; a few, such as George Lucas's latest Star Wars episodes, are even shot using high-definition digital cameras, rather than being photographed on film.
Yet across the world, the standard format for presentation remains 35mm celluloid, which delivers superb quality to audiences.
Now the cinema industry stands on the threshold of a great, rolling transition from celluloid to digital, which is expected to gather momentum over the decade ahead. In time, digital technologies are likely to exert as profound an impact on the cinema sector as on the broadcast and other media sectors.
Digital or D-cinema has already been piloted in the UK for ten years. Disney/Pixar's Toy Story was supplied and presented digitally (on a Texas Instruments DLP prototype) at London's Odeon, Leicester Square, in 1995. But only a handful of cinemas have had digital projectors whilst further quality advances were achieved. Now, with D-cinema giving state-of-the-art clarity on screen, audiences may be unaware that they are watching a digital, as opposed to a film, presentation.
A great deal of work has been undertaken around the world, but especially by the studios' Digital Cinema Initiative, to develop global standards for D-cinema. The general aim is to ensure that digital content can be distributed and played anywhere in the world - as is the case, of course, with a 35mm print. The new technologies and components should be based on open, as well as compatible, standards that foster competition among equipment and service providers. The hardware should be capable of easy upgrades as further advances occur.
Who gains from D-cinema
Potentially, there are real benefits both for the industry and, most importantly, for audiences.
Film distributors - the companies that release movies and market them to the public - will benefit if there are substantial reductions in the costs of duplicating film prints and transporting them to cinemas. The UK is one of the most expensive markets in the world in which to release a film. FDA members spend approximately £125m a year on prints, duplicated in high-tech laboratories. A digitally produced or converted film could be delivered quickly and reliably via disc (a much smaller, cheaper physical medium than a 35mm print), fibre optic cable or satellite - triggering a huge systems change for the whole industry.
Cinemas that book and receive a digital copy would store it on a computer/server in the projection box, which would serve it to a particular digital projector for each screening. Importantly, distributors should be able to encode and encrypt their digital files, to ensure that each film is as secure as possible and that access to them throughout the theatrical lifecycle is controlled and traceable. In the digital era, new asset management models will emerge but for the foreseeable future, piracy is expected to continue as a key business issue, undermining the industry's further development.
In due course, it may be possible for distributors to deliver newly cut digital trailers to cinemas at very short notice, capitalising on topical developments such as awards nominations or wins, favourable reviews and box-office success, much as other forms of film advertising already do.
Film archiving could also be transformed by digital progress. Professional storage of 35mm reels can demand considerable space, care and funding.
For cinemas themselves, digital equipment may present diverse programming opportunities, such as concerts, sports events or short films of local interest, and it may help them as venues to attract business conferences. Depending on the catchment area population, perhaps a choice of classic films could be screened at selected times, if and when digital copies are available at low cost.
For cinema audiences, all these opportunities may result in wider choice. In addition, the digital images on screen will be picture-perfect every time. By contrast, the more often celluloid is run through a projector, the more prone it becomes to scratches and fading, wear and tear.
UK digital screen network
FDA welcomes and supports an initiative by the UK Film Council, to invest up to £13 million of National Lottery funds in what will become the world's first digital screen network, placing the UK at the forefront of D-cinema.
It is planned that up to 200 screens in 150 cinemas across the UK - a quarter of the total - will be equipped with digital projectors. In return, cinemas will be asked by the Film Council to show a broader range of specialised (non-blockbuster) films such as documentaries or foreign language titles on a regular basis.
Hopefully, such a substantial investment will help the hardware costs to fall, which in turn could facilitate extra installations. Initially at least, the network will comprise 2K digital projectors (2,048 x 1,080 pixels resolution).
D-cinema presents opportunities for the cinema industry to try new ways of working, and of course there is much to learn from experience.
Given lower print/shipping costs, distributors may be able to consider increasing the number of (digital) copies or increasing their advertising investment to promote the film. If they take this risk, it may in turn help to draw a larger audience to 'specialised' films which tend inevitably to have smaller releases than commercial blockbusters. Of course, simply making more copies of a film does not automatically lead to more tickets being sold.
Ultimately, audiences will decide what content they want to pay to view, and accordingly what gets shown, in cinemas; technology itself does not drive admissions. Whatever happens from now on, potentially very exciting changes are coming. The future isn't what it used to be.