Towards the end of 2005, the UK distribution and exhibition sectors were starting to move towards digital distribution and exhibition. For exhibitors, digital projection, especially when married to the increasing use digital formats in production, can now replicate - if not surpass - the image quality of conventional 35mm cinema presentation. And, of course, digital sound systems have been used in cinemas for some time.
In distribution terms, the advantages of digital technology are even clearer, though perhaps longer term. Digital technology is seen to offer a more cost effective and logistics-light alternative to the tried and trusted, but unwieldy model of 35mm print distribution described above. It will, eventually, be cheaper and much less stressful to send films as computer files to cinemas across the UK, than to transport 20-25kg tins of film in the back of a van.
Digital distribution and exhibition on a large scale has started to appear in certain parts of the world, notably China and Brazil, where conventional logistics cannot, for one reason or another, efficiently bring together supply and demand. In the UK, digital technology has been embraced by the non-theatrical sector, in film societies and schools, where the use of DVD and mid-range digital projection has replaced 16mm.
The force of this change, coupled with the new capacity of technology to replicate 35mm imaging, has led the UK Film Council to establish a digital distribution and exhibition programme for the theatrical sector at the end of 2005. Entitled the Digital Screen Network (DSN), it will eventually support new facilities in 211 screens across the country (out of a total of just over 3,300 screens in the UK), and is seen as a small but important step change towards full digital cinema.
The DSN will initially work with files transferred from a high definition digital master (either HDD5, or HD Cam). The compressed and encrypted files will be sent directly to cinemas to be downloaded, de-encrypted (unlocked) and opened as files for screening with digital projection equipment. In principle, digital distribution will, in time, change the paradigm of 35mm print logistics. It will be possible for the distributor to send feature film files electronically, via broadband networks, thus eliminating dependence on transportation.
There is little doubt that the advent of digital distribution has the potential radically to alter the modus operandi of distributors around the world. The comparatively low cost of film copies and additional logistical effectiveness of digital distribution provide the distributor with greater flexibility. It will be less expensive in the coming years to offer a wide theatrical opening with many copies, and also conversely, to screen a film for just one performance at any cinema. In theory at least, it will be possible for both distributors and exhibitors to respond more precisely to audience demand.
All this suggests that in the future, more titles, both mainstream and specialised, will receive wide theatrical openings, and that this broadening of access at the point of release will dramatically reduce the overall theatrical period from 3-6 months to perhaps 1-3 months. Thereafter, films will enter into a second-run and repertory programming market aided by lower costs.
The shortened first-run period will in turn bring forward the distributor's release of the DVD. And there's the rub. The adoption of digital technologies offers greater opportunities for distributors to create joined-up campaigns for theatrical and DVD releases, in which, increasingly, the theatrical opening is used as a way of providing a loss-leading marketing platform for the highly lucrative DVD leg.