Modern, digital technology is making ever bigger inroads in today's entertainment world. For German movie theaters, upgrading their equipment means make-or-break, but also better chances.
The buzz of the cinematograph has marked movie theater entertainment ever since the French Lumière brothers invented the cinema in the 19th century.
In more modern days, however, the monotonous sound that once made you dream has been replaced by infernal hissing caused by an air blower. The device provides cooling for a digital film projector the size of a refrigerator, which requires permanent ventilation to keep rolling.
“If the projector's temperature remains above 30 degrees Celsius for a longer period, it switches off automatically,” said Christian Gisy, a senior manager at German movie theater chain Cinemaxx.
In July, Cinemaxx replaced its last analog cinematograph with a state-of-the-art digital film projector. The company had spent a total of 24 million euros ($31.7 million) on its drive to go digital, Gisy said, as installing a new digital projector would cost between 50,000 and 100,000 euros.
The substantial investment, however, is unlikely to pay off in the long run. Digital projectors needed more energy and would run up higher maintenance bills, Gisy said. Noting that operating costs had increased eight times, he said, the figures regarding the costs and savings of a new projector just didn't add up.
Nevertheless, virtually all of Germany's cinema operators have made the investment, succumbing to pressure mainly from distributors to go digital. Distribution companies can save a lot from offering digital copies only, as analog production and distribution is vastly more expensive.
Over the course of next year, all new movies for the German market will be in the digital format only. Movie theatres that won't have digitalized their equipment by then will not be able to show any of the "big" movies anymore.
German distribution business lobby group VdF said it didn't expect problems as a result of the digitalization campaign. Demand for analog copies had become virtually non-existent anyway, said VdF spokesman Johannes Klingsporn.
Just about 10 to 15 analog copies of a movie were currently being distributed to the German market, Klingsporn told DW, which didn't make commercial sense anymore.
Offer of support
Latest industry estimates said about 80 percent of German movie theaters had digitalized so far, and that the remaining would start replacing their equipment in the months to come.
Cinema owners' lobby group AG Kino Gilde said it was running a special investment program aimed at supporting especially smaller theaters to go digital.
Nevertheless, there were bound to be victims of the digital revolution, said Kino Gilde expert Christian Breuer, because a certain level of minimum sales was required for a cinema to qualify for support.
“Cinemas which don't have regular daily programs are bound to suffer, as well as film clubs and off cinemas which also offer book readings and arts performances to keep afloat,” he told DW, adding that in the worst case they might have to close.
Business models for the digital era
Meanwhile, movie theaters are looking for new business models to retrieve at least some of the higher costs. In this effort, digitalization also provides new opportunities.
In the past, notably up-market, artistic movies were low in circulation but high in demand. Such movies could only be watched in a small number of exclusive movie theatres. Since digital copies were rather cheap in production, this would create greater flexibility as far as cinema schedules were concerned, said Kino Gilde's Christian Breuer.
“A multi-faceted program of German and international movies beyond the Hollywood mainstream might become the strength of smaller theaters in future,” Breuer stressed.
In addition, digitalized movies, stored on hard disks, can be shown in their original languages, with or without subtitles, and were easier to obtain than any of their analog copies, he added.
Cinemaxx official Christian Gisy also welcomed the advent of the digital era in cinema, noting that showrooms in movie theaters could be used more flexible, depending on the success of a movie among audiences. Moreover, the new digital equipment was also suitable for showing live broadcasts of sports and cultural events, he said.
“On Saturdays, we've been showing operas staged at the Metropolitan in New York, for example, or currently the Wagner Opera Festival held in Bayreuth,” he said, adding that this wasn't possible without digitalization.
However, if the bigger opportunities of digital cinema will really translate into higher profits for all remains to be seen.