Digital cinema has the potential to take Africa’s under-invested film exhibitors out of the doldrums

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Outside of Sub-Saharan Africa’s larger country markets, Africa’s cinemas are few in number relative to population sizes and nearly always in poor shape. A recent transition to digital cinema in South Africa shows that Africa can lead with technical innovations. But the impact of digital cinema may also have a role to play in reviving the sagging fortunes of Africa’s cinemas elsewhere. Russell Southwood looks at what might become possible.

South Africa’s Central Point Communications with the support of Argil Venture Capital (a technology fund whose investors include Ernst & Young) has concluded the roll-out of digital cinema servers in 36 NuMetro cinema complexes around SA, aiming to enable these cinemas to exhibit high definition advertising and full length feature movies from a digital platform. Using its experience in developing digital signage software and content delivery engines, CPC has developed an advanced Digital Cinema offering based on its popular DC Media Digital Display technology.

“Our software platform is flexible enough to support newer multimedia formats including High Definition (HD), allowing our customer to innovate without the need for re-capitalisation,” says Richard Brock, director of software development at CPC. Aside from facilitating playback of digital content, the CPC Digital Cinema product includes comprehensive management software that provides continuous feedback and remote control mechanisms, he adds.

Digital cinema is ideally placed to address one of the most difficult problems affecting film distribution: the cost of making prints at release date. 35 mm film prints are expensive and this entry-cost is often a disincentive to wider distribution or in some cases any distribution at all. Digital prints can be produced at almost marginal cost and either distributed physically or by satellite. Also rather than splicing advertisements in physically, these can much more easily be inserted digitally.

Film-makers everywhere have been very concerned whether digital prints would be of a poorer quality and if “the feel” of the image would be different. The debates echo what some musicians and sound engineers said when CDs replaced LPs. However, audience tests in the UK (where viewers were shown digital prints with or without their knowledge) showed that few could actually tell the difference. Also those who have viewed films when a print is at the end of its run know that a decline in the quality is reflected on the screen.

Indeed there are positive advantages for film-makers, particularly independent ones. For as Paul Dixon, MD of Argil Venture Capital notes: “With the elimination of the cost of producing and distributing physical film, independent movie producers are able to take their productions to the public at a far reduced cost.” Cinema chains in the UK and elsewhere have also been able to show independent short films far more easily before the main feature than was possible with physical prints.

Digital cinema also offers opportunity for live transmission events. A cinema chain in the UK is currently offering premium price tickets to see a live cast of a performance of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Obviously this is not the kind of product that will go over well in Africa but there are probably real opportunities with boxing matches and premium football events. Ah, I hear you say, but what about pay-TV at home? That’s all well and good if you have a good size screen and can afford the monthly pay TV bouquet with premium sport.

For those who can’t at the moment, they tend to go to the television equivalent of a cyber-café. In Gambia cafes like this charge their customers for premium events and it will not surprise you to learn that the content is pirated and the income does not return to the rights holders. Therefore maybe digital cinema is one way of offering a better viewing experience and the excitement of a live crowd. Digital projectors can throw images that can cater for anything from tens to hundreds of people.

It may even offer film producers more likelihood of a return if the experience of one Nigerian film-maker is anything to go by. According to Eddie Ugbomeh, OON, actor and film producer, "I no longer realease videos or DVDs into the Nigerian market. What I do now with my films is premiere them and take them to select film halls and after I've made my money, I simply retire them to the shelves. The last time I released VCDs to video rental outlets across the country, they never gave me any returns. In Port Harcourt, Rivers state, these rental operators even threaten to kill me if I come for my money. Same thing at Warri, Delta state. So I've made up my mind not to release VCDs in the present circumstances."