UK Film Council’s Digital Screen Network – Looking Back 10 Years On

By Steve Perrin | February 11, 2015 2:41 am PST
Steve Perrin

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the UK Film Council awarding the contract for the setting up and running of the Digital Screen Network (DSN) to Arts Alliance Media (AAM), following a competitive tender process. The DSN was arguably the first large-scale digital cinema roll-out that aspired to conform to the specifications that were still in being formulated by DCI in Hollywood. [Full disclosure: I assisted in the evaluation process as a consultant.] Spearheaded by Steve Perrin and Pete Buckingham the DSN sought to promote the distribution of a wider range of films in a wider range of cinemas for UK audiences everywhere. The DSN arguably paved the way for the subsequent mass digitisation of UK cinema industry and started exhibitors on the learning curve that was necessary to fully comprehend what was at stake. For Steve’s achievements after a lifetime in the industry he was awarded an MBE for services to the UK cinema industry in this year’s New Year’s Honours List. Here he looks back on the experience of shepherding this critical project and its subsequent legacy. – PvS

You two must be mad. It’ll never work. What a waste of public money.

                                                                       – Unnamed UK industry academic.

What a great idea. We applaud you.

                                                                     – Unnamed Hollywood studio executive.

Embarking upon a scheme to digitise over 200 screens in the UK in the mid 2000’s was a daunting task. DCI was still working on their technical recommendations, and exhibitors were still yet to grasp the fact that digital cinema was their inevitable future. In short, it was an uphill struggle. What kept Pete and I motivated was twofold.

First, it was the best scheme that we could imagine to fulfil the brief that we had been given by the UKFC Board; a wider range of films in a wider range of cinemas. Second, whereas our aims did not revolve around the promotion of digital cinema ‘per se’, we knew that it was coming and that the DSN presented a unique opportunity for the industry to begin take on board the ramifications that such a change would bring about.

Thus, we set of a journey that might not just be valuable for the industry, but to ourselves in terms of learning and fully appreciating the complex factors involved.

Needless to say, there were a number of ‘naysayers’ that said that it could not be done; that the industry did not need and would never convert to digital and that had set ourselves out on a fool’s errand. In addition, it was claimed by other detractors that all we were doing was to subsidise the studios and big cinema chains and that they should be doing it themselves. No real surprises there; the key point that we were doing this for audiences was totally missed by such commentators. Fortunately, such comments were in the minority, and basically confined to those who made their living from the public purse. Still arrows in the back are always expected by those that start something new and innovative…

More surprising though was the support and enthusiasm that we received from the major US studios when we explained our plans to them. Whereas the DSN strategy was not directly aimed at them, they appreciated what we were planning and offered every support and advice that we might need. Contrary to some in the UK that thought that we were wasting our time, the studios understood immediately what we were attempting to achieve and supported it whole-heartedly. As noted above, the strategy was supported in the main part with public funds, with the equipment recipients contributing just a small amount. Now, one might imagine that spending public funds was quite easy – at least when compared to private capital. Nothing, we discovered, was further from the truth.

We soon learned that the spending of such funds was as complex as anything we had done in our professional lives. The rules and regulations from both UK and European bodies meant that we were monitored all along the way, had to jump through a number of regulatory hoops, and spent more time on legal and contractual issues than we ever imagined.

Not only was the initial tender process for the equipment and related services complex and time-consuming – for the applicants as well as the review team – the cinemas themselves had to meet and fulfil stringent criteria. Notwithstanding, we succeeded in getting the cinemas equipped and the distributors providing digital copies of their films where they indeed had them.

On this point, an interesting encounter comes to mind. As mentioned above, the key objective of the strategy was to widen the range of films in UK cinemas. We weren’t looking at extreme ‘art house’, rather those films that would likely find an audience in those cinemas and areas that traditionally did not play more specialised films. We developed an internal proxy name for such films – Pedro Almadovar.

As it happens, I had a meeting with Mr Almodovar at the Soho Hotel in London whilst he was in London promoting the release of his film ‘Volver’. I explained to him the purpose of the DSN, and the fact that his films were exactly what we had in mind. Whereas he appeared to be complimentary, he explained that he had yet to embrace digital technology and that his film, which were supporting through the UKFC’s P&A (distribution support) Fund did not actually have a digital copy! Irony of ironies…. I don’t recall whether we dropped the proxy name from our lexicography, but it was a lesson learned – never assume anything in this business!

We quickly learned another lesson; one digital screen in a cinema was not enough. Both being from a distribution background, Pete and I were always acutely aware that successful films made their way from screen to screen through the cinema so that box-office revenue might be maximised. As more and more films became available in digital format, demand for the digital screens outstripped supply. Films could not always open digitally, or indeed be held in the screen for as long as audience demand existed. In short, there was then nowhere for them to go. Dual inventory was still the order of the day, and remained so for a good decade thereafter.

We were of course in the early days of digital distribution and distributors and producers, especially in the independent sector, had yet to fully understand what was involved. Not really surprising since they did not possess the technical back-up of their studio counterparts and it would be a while before they caught up.

During the initial development and roll-out period, we naturally came to the attention of similar public bodies in Europe and indeed further afield. A large number of invitations were received by both Pete and myself to present our strategy at industry meetings, so much so we had to split forces to cover them all. The DSN became one of the most talked about public body initiatives in the international film industry. The whole worldwide discussion about the future of cinema and digital projection technology thus continued.

Of course, one didn’t need to be overly prescient to realise that digital cinema was the future and that there would inevitably be mass worldwide conversion in the not too distant future. It was often joked that digital cinema spawned a whole new industry in conferences and acronyms; DCI, DCM, DCP, 2k/4k, Mpeg/Jpeg, KDM, the dreaded VPF, and many others, are common currency today. Ten years ago they were confined to the cognoscenti in the technical world.

So, can one detect a legacy ten years later the birth of the DSN? Without doubt, the UK now releases more films today than ever, with foreign language and more ‘specialised films’ receiving wider distribution than ever before. More people chose to see these films, a fact reflected in the box office. Positing a causal link might be dangerous, although it perhaps churlish to suggest that the DSN, along with other UKFC initiatives, notably the P&A Fund[1], had no effect at all. What is clear, however, is that the DSN prepared the way in terms of understanding and acceptance that digital cinema would be the future, whether wanted or not, and that UK conversion was faster and less complex than it might otherwise have been.

In the history of cinema, ten years is not a long time. To the lives of those who lived through the conversion process, it is somewhat more. These people witnessed not just a technology change but a wholesale change in the way that day to day business was done. Those joining the industry today cannot imagine things being any other way. Not surprising really, as those of us today that witnessed the multiplex revolution might feel the same. Doubtless, those a few generations back might also feel the same about their experiences. Plus ca change, plus ca change

[1]  The P&A Fund was the first initiative developed by Pete and myself to provide financial support to distributors who believed that their more specialised films might find a larger audience if more cinemas were able to play the film (the ‘P’ – Print – part of the equation) and more in depth publicity and advertising effort (the ‘A’ part of the equation). Needless to say, we received brickbats for this as well as on occasions we supported films from studios that we deemed worthy of additional marketing efforts. Detractors could still never get their mind around the fact that we were doing this to increase audience opportunities rather than subsidising studios. Without our intervention, such films would not have received such a wide release, no matter how rich the distributor!!