Director’s Fortnight Highlights Digital Divide

By J. Sperling Reich | May 14, 2010 3:48 am PDT
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Last night I had the privilege of attending the opening night of the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. The film being shown was “Benda Bilili” a fantastic documentary about a Congolese band made up of homeless parapelgics who go on to win international acclaim. Before the lights dimmed however the audience was addressed by the head of the Société des réalisateurs de films, the French Director’s Guild which organizes the Cannes sidebar.

After handing filmmaker Agnès Varda a lifetime achievement award, Malik Chibane (at least I believe it was him) turned to the audience with a serious word of caution. He was speaking in French and between what I understood and what was translated by the person standing next to Chibane I figured it was worth repeating here.

Keeping in mind, I’m paraphrasing, Chibane told the audience that “Benda Bilili” was being shown in 35mm and a film projector, which is how films had been shown for the past 100 years. However, this won’t always be the case. Very soon cinemas throughout France will undergo a digital conversion and films will be delivered on hard drives. He warned that such technology will actually decrease the diversity of films being shown in theatres, especially for French films. He stated that small theatres wouldn’t be able to convert to digital cinema, just those showing big blockbuster films.

Then as the film started a short 20 second promo put together by the SFR was shown. Again it was in French so I’m paraphrasing, but effectively the message of the animated spot was that a lack of diversity undermines the movies and that digital cinema threatened French culture. The trailer is embedded at the head of this post.

This lead me to do a little research into Chibane’s statements and the creation of the trailer. It’s not news that certain European territories such as France believe smaller cinemas will be shut out of the digital cinema conversion since they do not show big Hollywood movies. In fact, SFR made three different trailers “dealing with the consequences of the current policy of digitization of cinemas” all of which can be seen on YouTube.

The themes of the other two trailers roughly translate to “the rapid turnover of film prints seriously affects the cinema” and “the hour is grave for the cinema”. The SFR’s statement on the subject both on their website and YouTube channel reads:

Digital cinema prevents the circulation of films and thus their distribution in the long term: it must be paid for by the distributor of a movie and third-party investors. Each screen (or theatre) will choose one or the other of these third-party investors. A distributor that wants to place his film into the national network of cinemas for an extended period of time will be forced to pay several digital cinema fees – one to each of the third-party investors.

Of course, the third-party investors being referred to are integrators such as Arts Alliance or XDC which operate in Europe and the distributors are most likely small, regional distributors. On Sunday afternoon the European Audiovisual Observatory will hold a conference in Cannes titled Digital Cinema Tango to discuss the issue.

There is a slight irony here in that “Benda Bilili” was actually shot on digital video cameras and was transfered to 35mm. That aside, what do you think of Chibane’s comments and what are your thoughts on the matter of digital cinema decreasing the diversity of content being shown in certain territories?

J. Sperling Reich