Will digitization lead to cine-carnage in UK?

By Patrick von Sychowski | October 20, 2008 10:53 pm PDT
Derilict Hoxton cinemas
Derelict Hoxton cinema

Opinion pieces and leader column in UK media have been alive with the debate about whether the imminent switch to digital cinema (imminent, once the credit crunch is over, that is) will lead to death and carnage amongst the smaller cinemas on the British Isles.

The debate was triggered by a comment by the UK Film Council’s Peter Buckingham that whilst the UKFC had funded 240+ screens conversion to digital, the UK Government will not bail out at-risk cinemas (unlike at-risk banks, one hastens to add). From the Telegraph:

Peter Buckingham of the UK Film Council warned that 300 independent cinemas – many in rural areas – are in series danger of closing because they can’t afford the transition.

“If they haven’t got digital they aren’t going to have anything to show in five years time,” he told The Times. “I don’t know what Plan B is – there is no public money available.”

The major multiplexes, which account for about 85 per cent of film takings, have so far refused to use their economies of scale to help smaller cinemas convert. The UK Film Council estimates it would cost £50 million to update all the vulnerable cinemas.

Derelict Catform cinemas
Derelict Catford cinema

Pretty grim outlook. But over in the Independent, John Walsh argues that we have been here before:

The death of the nation’s independent cinemas has been predicted so often that hearing the news of another imminent demise is like seeing another re-run of The Great Escape. Britain’s old movie palaces have been heading the way of the stegosaurus for half a century, scuppered by television, bingo parlours, dwindling visitor numbers, too many crap movies chasing too few screens, and the rise of the all-conquering DVD. But I still wipe away a tear on hearing that the switch from celluloid to digital projectors and servers may drive smaller cinemas out of business.

A very measured assesment was offered by Screen International’s always-worth-reading editor Mike Gubbins, writing in The Times (‘The inability to evolve has darkened screens before’), with the first paragraph particularly worth pondering:

The switch to digital cinema has barely touched the consciousness of the public. Some may be aware of the hype surrounding 3D, while others may have seen an opera screened at the local cinema, but this is not a demand-led transformation.

The industry debate between those in favour, who hope to see greater choice, and opponents who fear more efficient domination of the Hollywood studios has rarely reached the public domain.

But the digital divide might become an ugly reality if large numbers of cinemas close. Stroll along any high street and see if you can spot the ornate frontage that was once a cinema.

For a sad reminder of previous cinemas that are now gone, visit Derelictlondon.com’s cinema page.

Patrick von Sychowski
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