If you listen to film purists, the switch to digital cinema led to the death of the projectionist craft, VPF-enforced superhero multiplex programming and bad 3D. So what good has digital actually done for cinema? A new research paper by Anne-Britt Gran from the Oslo Business School called “Digitizing Cinemas – Comprehensive Intended and Unintended Consequences for Diversity” attempts to quantify the positive benefits in light of the digital cinema switch in Norway, with fascinating conclusions. A special hat tip to Ivar H. for bringing the study to our attention.
The study is particularly important as Norway was the first country to transition all of its cinemas from 35mm to digital projection between 2009 and 2012. By the time it was completed, only 70% of cinemas in the rest of Europe had been digitized. Norway also had a unique municipal cinema ownership model. This meant there was a major presence of movie theatres in small towns and villages, which often received film prints weeks or months after they first played in Oslo and Trondheim. So much so that 10% of Norwegian cinema screens represent 90 percent of the turnover in analogue times. Norway has thus been digital longer than any cinema market, even as it moved to an ownership model where big cinema players (Odeon and Nordisk) came to dominate.
The aim of the Norwegian government and industry body Film & Kino’s support in digitizing cinemas was primarily to preserve smaller and rural cinemas, not to enhance diversity in terms of programming. Yet the number of “niche” titles shown increased by 133% and even up to 800% in some rural cinemas in the period examined. The numbers are eye-popping:
“Despite a relatively constant number of cinemas, the total number of screenings increased by 23% and the number of screenings per cinema was up 27%. Each cinema is thus utilizing its physical facilities better than before, giving the audience more choices as to when to visit the cinema. The increase was particularly strong for rural cinemas, for which the number of screenings was up 41% from 2008 to 2017.”
Attendance figures in rural cinemas increased 18% during this time, even as overall figures for national attendance declined 5%. Between 2008 and 2017 the number of non-Norwegian and non-Hollywood titles increased by 66%, reflecting a strong growth for European and global cinema. While there has been a concentration of blockbusters, it is clear that digitization has had a significant beneficial consequence for the overall Norwegian cinema market and smaller, rural cinemas in particular.
We will dig deeper and publish more from this study in the future, but as cinemas struggle to rise again after the COVID pandemic, it is worth acknowledging how digital has made things better for cinemas – unless you really, really miss scratches and flicker.
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