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New Nouvelle Vague - France Flirts With Digital Cinema

Some film distributors are choosing to release movies directly online without theater screenings. Because of cinema regulations, this new model is forbidden in France — for French movies — but foreign films are another matter.

You watching a film on this tablet?
You watching a film on this tablet?
Nathalie Silbert

PARIS — Do viewers of first-run films really need a theater these days? Two major movie distributors have decided they don't, choosing to release feature films directly online, skipping the theater altogether. This is how The Age Of Adaline — starring Blake Lively and Harrison Ford — was recently launched in France.

The companies TF1 Video and Wild Bunch have both decided that they will choose this new "digital cinema" model for five releases this year, offering new films as on-demand rentals at around $8, the average price for a movie ticket.

For now, this is just an experiment, both companies say. They have found a way to follow the rules of French cinema and still use this new model. Because French films aren't allowed to be introduced this way, they will only release foreign movies, mostly English-language, digitally. This also allows them to free themselves from the calendar of a movie's life that determines how long it can be shown in each medium — theaters, DVD, VOD (video on demand), free television and paid television.

Wild bunch and TF1 Video say digital cinema releases will make movies more profitable, whereas today they are victims of the saturation of movie theaters. "With 663 movies released exclusively in 2014, the theater network, despite all its efforts, cannot guarantee a larger geographical coverage," says Vincent Grimond, president of Wild Bunch. The profusion of releases creates effectively eliminates the movies that don't convince the audience in their first days.

They also argue that a download gives the distributor a higher profit margin than what it would get with a ticket sold in a cinema. In fact, a VOD release is cheaper than a classical release because many expenses disappear (making copies and transportation, for example). Promotional expenses remain the same because films still need to create a buzz to attract viewers. And movies that go directly online have an advantage that Wild Bunch and TF1 Video are already exploiting: They can be sponsored by advertising companies on television, which is forbidden for films released in cinemas.

Bypassing the traditional calendar

Both distributors are counting on "post digital cinema" exhibitions. Movies can be sold to television channels, for example, to be broadcast on small screens even before the 36 months imposed for traditional cinema releases.

Finally, the development of broadband and the growing number of households equipped with HD television sets and tablets have made watching movies at home customary.

For all that, the digital cinema model still needs a bit of tweaking because initial results are mixed. The movie Welcome To New York enjoyed significant buzz because of its subject — the fall of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And thanks to Gérard Depardieu's portrayal of the former IMF boss, it generated more than 200,000 views. But the performance of the thriller Mercy — a huge success in Denmark, where Wild Bunch has released it as a digital film — will be disappointing.

In the medium term, the question is whether digital cinema will find its place in France. Already, the European Commission, seeing that a growing number of films are produced in Europe, has expressed support for this new model and encouraged experimentation. In the U.S., digital cinema — as well as simultaneous releases in theaters and on the Internet — has become common. The Weinstein brothers, famous American producers and distributors, are among the first in this market with their label Radius. Streaming giant Netflix is also planning to implement a new strategy for movies it will produce.

Digital exploitation has already become a lifeline for an entire sector of independent production. In France, this system encounters some difficulties because of financing in the movie industry that is based on cinema release. Being broadcast on big screens is the only criteria that allows a film to be labeled as "cinematic work." On the other hand, as producers have difficulty finding money for their films and as the number of theaters stagnates, having access to a parallel broadcasting system could be an advantage if it is efficient.

Tristan Du Laz, deputy general manager of TF1 Video, says, "We are ready to welcome every director who wants to come."

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