Digital distribution could make more money for distributors and cinemas
Wouldn't it be great if you could pick the films that your local cinema is going to show?
Having missed the last showing of the latest blockbuster at the multiplex, how about a one-off showing in your neighbourhood?
Or revive a classic, long since consigned to television reruns, to put it back on the big screen from whence it came?
That's exactly what Brazilian company MovieMobz has been doing for three months. Part social network, part digital content aggregator, the effort makes the best of the medium of digital cinema.
MovieMobz founder Fabio Lima is this week taking part in the London Film Festival and is hoping to bring the concept to the UK.
The principle is simple: join the site, pick your favourite cinemas, and create a "wish list" of films you'd like to see shown there. You can even join clubs dedicated to certain films or genres in your network.
The idea hinges on digital distribution, which retains the potential to turn film exhibition on its head.
One show only
Digital films benefit first and foremost by their cost to copy - creating the copy from the master costs a tenth what it costs to make a 35mm film copy, the industry standard.
On the other hand, once a film is converted to digital format, Lima says, "it's just a file".
Currently, the cinema industry works on a per-week basis, with cinemas booking films from distributors for a number of full weeks. In the MovieMobz model, the screenings are individual, and a single screen might see seven different films in a week.
Instead of a cinema signing up for a two-week run of a given film, only to find empty seats from the third day, they can sound out their public and fit the number of screenings to the demand.
That means more opportunity for in particular for small-time titles, foreign films, documentaries, and so on. Such small-scale, independent films often lose out to big-name releases that have the cash to throw around for the myriad distribution costs.
According to the UK Film Council, in 2005 these "specialised" films represented 54% of the total films released but only 5% of admission revenue.
"Let's suppose your cinema sells 1,000 tickets per week," Lima says. "You're not going to sell 1,000 tickets to a Brazilian movie.
"But if we can have flexible programming, you can have one French movie, one local documentary, one South Korean movie, one Brazilian movie and maybe you're going to sell more than the 1,000 tickets."
The UK now boasts more than 300 screens that have digital projectors, thanks mostly to an initiative started in 2006 by the UK Film Council, which financed the installation of 240 of the projectors in 210 cinemas nationwide.
But getting cinemas to invest in the projectors needs a boost. While distribution costs are decidedly smaller for digital films, the projectors, at about £50,000 each, are a deterrent to more widespread adoption.
Films on film could be on their way out if digital distribution takes hold
Peter Buckingham, Head of Distribution and Exhibition at the UK Film Council, is convinced that the MovieMobz approach could work, even with the number of digital projectors already in place.
"It doesn't require that the whole of the UK switch over to digital projectors," Mr Buckingham told the BBC. "I think it would work - I'd love to see it work."
MovieMobz was built in Brazil to target the "arthouse" cinemas, and now boasts over 200 screens in 26 cities as part of its network. New cinemas have even been built in places that didn't have a small, independent cinema, just to latch on to the MovieMobz phenomenon.
Getting the same level of involvement in the UK or the US is going to take a lot of deal-brokering with cinemas and distributors, for whom digital cinema is still a relatively new medium, and the rights owners - the studios.
But it is a proposition in which everyone benefits, with cinemagoers getting what they want and distributors' efforts decidedly more targeted to potential audiences.
"This is the first attempt I've seen at marrying the social website phenomenon with brick-and-mortar business," said Michael Karagosian, digital cinema consultant for the US National Association of Theater Owners.
"While the older crowd frets over the cost of high technology, the younger crowd is looking for, and finding, entertainment on its own terms."