While Germany enjoys international renown for its generosity to film producers and directors, it has so far done nothing to help its cinemas into the 3D digital age. And now time is beginning to run out.
It's about what you see, not what you look like
Avatar was always going to be a big deal, but the German cinema landscape was quite unprepared for the mayhem and uncertainty it has left in its wake. James Cameron's blockbuster came, was seen, and conquered the senses of a new generation of cinema-goers. The word on the blogs is that 3D rocks and there is no way back.
But keeping pace with audience demands is easier said than done in Germany, where cinemas have been rather ponderous in their willingness to embrace the technology it takes to screen the likes of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland in all their three-dimensional glory.
A year ago, just 30 of the nation's 4,000 plus screens were equipped with the technology necessary to run 3D flicks. And although that number has now reached somewhere between five and six hundred, there are still a lot of old-school picture houses dotted about the country.
Out with the old
Avatar was a game-changer
As quaint as that scenario might sound, it is potentially very damaging to the cinema industry. Kai Bartels, who runs a four-screen cinema in Quickborn, a small town just north of Hamburg, is all too aware of the need to move with the times.
"We screened Avatar as a normal film and everyone who came to buy a ticket wanted to know if it was in 3D and where they could get their glasses," Bartels told Deutsche Welle. "We lost out on that film."
By contrast, the UCI chain, which has more than 200 screens nationwide, some 40 of which are now equipped to show movies in 3D, reported a 13 percent increase in attendance levels last year. Spokesman Thomas Schulke says that surge in business is largely due to 3D films.
"All except one of our number one films this year have been 3D," he said. "There is a huge demand, people want a different viewing experience."
A still from Alice in Wonderland
Schulke believes that this time around, 3D is here to stay, and with companies such as Dreamworks dedicating their entire 2010 production slate to three-dimensional pictures, he could well be right.
Strapped for cash in the country
So why, in that case, aren't there more German cinemas making the transition necessary to secure them a piece of the juicy new pie? Jasko Jochenhoevel, academic assistant at the Potsdam Film and Television Academy, says it is simply a question of money.
"A digital projector costs somewhere in the realm of 80,000 euros ($107,000), and then another 30,000 on top to make it 3D compatible," Jochenhoevel said. “And a lot of smaller cinemas just can't afford it.”
The future face of small town cinemas?
And therein lies a potentially devastating problem. Because keeping up with the times is not only about being able to screen the latest 3D releases, it is about becoming digital per se. Cinemas that can only play analogue films will ultimately be nudged out of the listings, whether they run arthouse or more commercial programs.
"Digitial is the future, that's a fact," Bartels said. "There will come a time when distributors only work with digital copies. It could be in two or in five years, but that moment will come."
Every cinema for itself
When it does, Bartels wants to be ready, so has begun looking at ways to make it happen. Essentially that means taking out a loan, because despite good intentions on the part of German Federal Film board (FFA), no money has been made available to ease the path to the far side of the digital divide.
"We've always been told [funding] will come, but it hasn't so far and just sitting around waiting is too dangerous in this competitive climate," Bartels said.
The FFA first began drawing up plans for a comprehensive digitalization concept four years ago. The initial idea was that cinema operators, distributors, film funding bodies and the government would put a total of 280 million euros into a "solidarity fund" from which cinemas nationwide would have been entitled to draw.
But the fund became overshadowed by an ongoing battle between some movie theaters and the FFA over screening fees, and subsequently never made it beyond the planning stages.
A larger than life, 3D version of Shrek is due to hit the screens this year
Further efforts to come up with a new concept have also failed, and although a spokesman for the FFA told Deutsche Welle that there are new ideas in the pipeline, they are still a long way from becoming reality.
"We are all hoping, all waiting, but nobody knows when it [the fund] will come," the spokesman said.
In the meantime, the larger cinemas have taken it upon themselves to go digital, and given their huge seating capacities, the surcharge on 3D tickets and their competitive advantage, they are in a good position. It stands to reason that they're not keen to share the new and highly lucrative market with everyone else.
And if a deal cannot be struck at some point in the relatively near future, they might not have to.
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn