The view from UNIC: Film theft and digital cinema remain key concerns


CineEurope is the official convention of the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC), Europe’s equivalent of the National Association of Theatre Owners. In this exclusive FJI Q&A, Phil Clapp, chief executive of the U.K.’s Cinema Exhibitors' Association and senior VP of UNIC, discusses major issues facing the European exhibition community and the role that UNIC plays.

What are the biggest challenges facing exhibitors in Europe today?
There are undoubtedly a range of challenges. Principal amongst these is the issue of film theft, which remains a key threat to exhibitors as it does to others in the film industry. While cinema operators have enjoyed considerable success in tackling film theft in their theatres, the continuing difficulties experienced at the national and European level in getting robust action taken against those who distribute illegal content online remains a key area of concern.

The other key area of focus is the rollout of digital-cinema technology. While territories are well-advanced in this, others are still faced with a significant number of sites for whom there is no obvious route to this new technology. The potential loss of such sites—which remains a real possibility—would have a real economic, social and cultural impact on the communities they serve.

A third area of concern, not yet urgent, but something of which we are increasingly aware, is the tendency of government—in particular it seems at the European level—to want to become involved in matters which have traditionally been left to the market in most territories, such as release strategies. We see this as a dangerous and unnecessary step.

What kind of progress has Europe made in the fight against film theft?

With a multi-faceted problem such as film theft, progress is inevitably variable. In cinemas, significant progress has been made in preventing and disrupting the activities of those who would seek to record films. This is the result of a great deal of hard work by cinema staff, backed up by training and technology. We are also making some progress in educating people—in particular young people—about the importance of respecting copyright and the impact that film theft can have on the livelihoods of those working in the industry. Against that, as I noted, the online distribution of stolen film content remains a key concern. Efforts to enlist the support of ISPs and telecommunications companies in restricting the use of their networks for the trafficking of such content continue to develop. The exhibition sector—as do colleagues elsewhere in the film industry—look to governments to take this issue seriously and give the industry the laws it needs to tackle it.

Which territories in Europe are having the most dynamic growth?
Over the last five years, the most dynamic growth has been seen in Central and Eastern Europe, in particular Russia and emerging territories such as Romania and Bulgaria.

How has the transition to digital in Europe progressed since CineEurope 2011?
The last year has seen further significant progress in the transition to digital cinema. At the time of CineEurope 2011, we estimated that over 30 percent of screens in Europe had been digitized; by CineEurope this year, we expect the figure to be well over 50 percent. Of course, that headline figure masks a wide range of numbers. Some territories, such as Norway and Luxembourg, have been fully digitized for over a year and are already seeing the benefits. Others such as the U.K., France and the Netherlands, hope to be in this position within the next six months or so. Others, such as maybe Spain, Greece and Turkey, have further to go, not least due to the economic difficulties in their wider economy.

And, as you mentioned, smaller theatres in some countries are in danger of closing because they haven’t made arrangements to convert to digital.
This is a real danger in some territories. With the end of 35mm likely to be seen in some European territories during the course of 2013, it is imperative that these theatres—and those who oversee film policy in affected countries—start to make plans now to digitize. There is not a moment to lose.

What are the most important contributions that UNIC makes to the exhibition community?
The key contribution UNIC can make is to give the exhibition sector a single and authoritative voice, heard by key policy- and decision-makers at the European level, be it at the European Commission or Parliament. In representing 32 members across 25 different territories, and within them the major circuit operators as well as a host of smaller independent sites, UNIC represents some 33,000 screens. That is a sector worth representing and defending.

What kind of growth has UNIC seen in the past 12 months?
Over the last 12 months, much of the focus of UNIC has been on internal reform and modernization. That has included relocating the headquarters from Paris to Brussels and recruiting for the first-time a full-time CEO, Jan Runge. But we have also continued to recruit new members, including Cinema City, the largest cinema operator in Central and Eastern Europe.

How do you feel about the future of the theatrical movie experience?
It is obvious to say that the death of cinema has often been—inaccurately—foretold. There is a lot of talk about films being provided on other platforms, from VOD to mobile phones, but nothing suggests that the public's appetite for the big-screen experience, shared with others, is under any serious threat. The challenge for the sector as always remains to provide that experience in the best possible environment.

How are European productions performing in European cinemas?
European domestic product remains a key strand for most UNIC members. It’s probably true to say that the variations in admissions and box office in many territories are determined by the range and quality of domestic productions much more than by that of the U.S. major studios. So looking across UNIC, we can see some countries such as France, Turkey and Italy which traditionally have a strong domestic market, making up as much as 40 percent of their box office.

What kind of impact do you expect from future innovations like high frame rates and laser projection?

Both higher frame rates [HFR] and laser illumination are clearly part of the future offer to Europe's cinema-goers. HFR is likely to be with us sooner than laser illumination, with the release of The Hobbit at the end of this year. The issue for exhibitors, who are still digging deep into their pockets to fund digital conversion, is how much this new technology will cost, what will be its benefits and whether any resulting improvements in the cinema experience will lead to increased admissions and box office. If that last issue remains unclear, then uptake of this new technology may be a slow process.