Though the excitement surrounding the 3D format is not new in the history of film, its turbulent development anticipates essential changes in the film industry. Thanks to 3D, James Cameron's Avatar has so far earned over USD 2.5 billion to become the highest-grossing film of all times. This gives some hope to other 3D films but also to cinema operators who have a new way to draw audiences back to cinemas.
However, not every cinema is ready yet to adopt the 3D technology as the first necessary step is to provide cinema halls with the necessary equipment and to make plans for the transfer to the DCI digital standard (Digital Cinema Initiatives ). How advanced is digitization in the Czech Republic? Does the new format imply more options for independent (documentary) films?
Although digitization of Czech cinemas was launched later than in other European countries (Germany, United Kingdom), thanks to state funding its progress has been quite rapid. In 2009, the State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinematography set out to resolve the digitization issue in order to catch up to the developments in other countries. Since funding could not be provided by the state budget, the Fund Council allocated a part of its own budget for this purpose.
As a result, two grant calls were announced to mark the first and second wave of digitization. In the first call, a total of CZK 22 million were distributed among 21 successful applicants (24 applications in total, with the condition of implementing the new standard by the end of 2009). The second call distributed almost CZK 17 million among 14 out of a total of 18 cinemas (digitization to be completed by mid-2010). The third digitization call is currently underway.
As of now, 64 Czech cinemas are equipped with the new digital standard and, according to Petr Vítek of Pro-DIGI, the number could reach 100 cinemas by the end of the year. With the gradual expansion of new options, Czech distributors are starting to provide the standard 35mm copy along with the DCI-compliant DCP format. Digital distribution opens up a number of interesting innovations, such as the simultaneous release of films - a digital copy can be uploaded onto a server without the need of an actual copy.
Digitization brings about a number of changes but will any of them have a major impact on documentary films? Currently there are several theatrical documentaries that are distributed on DCP copies. Helena Třeštíková's Katka (Aerofilms) was the very first Czech documentary distributed on DCP, followed by The Eye Over Prague (HCE) and Czech Peace (Bontonfilm). While it would not be entirely true to claim that these films made it to cinemas merely thanks to DCP, the new format is considerably useful when it comes to scheduling theatrical release. All digitized cinemas may launch the film simultaneously, which removes the need to first release the film in large cities and multiplexes and only then to smaller towns and cinemas. As a result, the film can make a better use of its media campaigns and PR strategies that are naturally planned to peak around the time of the release date.
Logically, all films should have the same starting position once the new conditions are in place. However, the situation may quickly go back to the status quo owing to pressure from multiplexes, e.g., through exclusivity agreements that would give the big players an edge over small cinemas (multiplexes represent approx. 86% of the market). This would apply mainly to 3D films and blockbusters that are often appealing to small cinemas in their effort to compete with the multiplexes. Arthouse, documentary and independent films are likely to be taken up by small cinemas that will establish a clear focus on films outside the mainstream and that will cater to audiences who want to see more demanding works. Yet even fringe film genres will have to face competition from various different types of audiovisual content, such as live concert broadcasts.
The current market might also get smaller due to digitization. The first reason is the anticipated end of many small cinemas that will not be able to afford the new technology . According to estimates, approx. 10% of all Czech cinemas will close down. Another factor that shrinks the market is that cinemas can now include alternative content in addition to films. In the Czech Republic, only one company, Aerofilms, offers this type of content, e.g., live opera or ballet broadcasts .
The circulation of films may also become shorter, which would lead to a fierce competition for audiences. It is possible that the funds saved on the production of copies will have to be invested into promotion and marketing, which may in the long run change the role of the distributor. This could prove to be disastrous for low-budget and arthouse films that lack a strong marketing power. If these films fail to draw audiences in the first few days of release, their existence in the market could be short-lived. This would also limit the possibilities of word-of-mouth campaigns that take a longer time to develop. According to Aleš Danielis of Bontonfilm, even average mainstream films could eventually be forced to make room for high-budget blockbusters and 3D screenings because there simply will not be space for ordinary films. Furthermore, it is possible that the market will push to introduce so-called virtual fee for films outside the mainstream and they would have to buy cinema programme slots. Přemysl Martinek of Artcam believes that such situation would require that non-mainstream films rethink their distribution strategy. One option could be to avoid local distributors altogether and to offer direct download of films into cinemas; this still goes beyond the possibilites of current technology as it can now take up to 24 hours to download a single film, a time comparable to the delivery of an actual copy by a courier service. Also, new forms of marketing and promotion may effectively be used for fringe genres, arthouse or documentary films. These include guerilla marketing and viral campaigns using, especially, online sharing and community services.
The impact of changes brought about by digitization is by some compared to the advent of sound films. Changes will sweep through the entire film industry. Aided by 3D screenings, small cinemas might get a new lease on life and draw more people. It is, however, likely that the problem is rooted in the content itself. Fearing the loss of audiences and feeding off the current blockbuster and 3D boom, small cinemas might choose to ignore European and arthouse films. In light of this realization, the outlook for documentary films may seem rather bleak, yet cinemas are no longer the sole distribution channel. Digitization should prompt documentary filmmakers to include planning and distribution strategies into the early development of their films, and to make appropriate changes in their initial filmmaking approach as well as the final output (theatrical/TV versions). Early adoption of this mindset and changes should, in the least, improve the film's chances of success.
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 Established in 2002 by Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros, Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) sets out to provide a system specification for digital cinema (www.dcimovies.com).
 According to Peter Vítek of Pro-DIGI, the costs for the transfer to digital standard amount to CZK 4.5 mil., including the 3D system.
This article is based on the seminar on cinema digitization - Cinema Digitization, Digital Copies - New Chance for Documentary Film? - that took place April 22, 2010, organized by the Institute of Documentary Film in cooperation with FAMU.