It has become almost axiomatic to state that the transition to digital technologies represents a momentous period of change for the cinema. As Angelo D’Alessio of the European Digital Cinema Form suggests, “the Cinema industry is confronting unparalleled levels of complexity, dynamic change and pressure to innovate.” But it is the final move to digital distribution that signals a complete paradigm shift for the industry: “the recent introduction of digital technologies into the final links in the production and distribution chain is, in fact, a ‘tipping point’ that fundamentally changes the industry’s economics and practices” (“Digital Dilemma” 8).
The rollout of digital distribution is contingent upon the wider infrastructure, the adoption of digital projection by the cinema operators, and the provision of digital content, so there is some unavoidable cross-over into the areas of cinema exhibition and production in the following discussion of what is a complex and rapidly shifting ecology of interests at stake in the conversion to digital cinema. As Marcus Weiss noted back in 1999 on the eve of the first wave of digital projection, “for these changes to take place, they must be accepted by the creative community, the production studios, the distributors, the exhibitors and finally the public”. For as long as cinema has been a business, there have been close connections between production, exhibition and distribution and this is ever more true at this time of unparalleled technological change. As a result, it is often difficult to separate these strands of the industry. However, this essay is about distribution, so I will confine my observations to this, touching on exhibition, production and reception only to highlight connections.
In this paper I explore the different ways in which digital projection has been adopted by the cinema distribution and exhibition industries in the UK, the European Union (EU) and the United States, arguing that whilst in America digital projection has largely been embraced on a commercial basis, in Europe, where there was initially a slower take up of digital distribution, there has been a tendency for governments to subsidize the technology for cultural reasons. I examine the current state of digital projection, exploring why has it taken longer for digital technologies to permeate into distribution and exhibition (as opposed to image capture and post production), and looking at the aesthetic and economic drivers and challenges which have delayed the full-scale conversion to digital cinema (D-cinema). The essay ends by exploring the dilemma of digital distribution for the viability of the 35mm release print, the impact of this on film stock production, and how this will affect film preservation, even of those films that are born digital.
Crofts, C. (2011). Cinema distribution in the age of digital projection. Post Script -Jacksonville-, 30(2), 82-98