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Digital Europa: Beating Hollywood at Its Own Distribution Game

By Carol Nahra

From Werner Herzog's 'The White Diamond,' which was distributed digitally to eight countries in Europe last November through CinemaNet Europe. Courtesy of CinemaNet Europe

It's always been the one of the biggest barriers to the genre--prohibitive distribution costs that prevent only the biggest, heaviest-hitting documentaries from coming to the big screen. Well, those days could soon be over.

In a scheme that promises to revolutionize the screening of documentaries, eight European countries have partnered to create the world's largest digital film network. Through CinemaNet Europe, 180 cinemas in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Slovakia and the UK will become digitally equipped and share the programming of documentaries across the continent. Subtitled on a central server, distributed by satellite and shown using digital projectors, CinemaNet Europe promises not only to create a large, new documentary community but also to greatly increase the chance for documentary makers to see their films play in cinemas internationally.

Last November the network launched with a festival, which included a film from each participating country which screened to audiences throughout Europe. The opening film was the critically acclaimed documentary from the UK Peace One Day, which included a satellite-linked Q&A session with director Jeremy Gilley. "It is every filmmaker's dream to have his work exhibited internationally and to be seen by the widest possible audience," said Gilley on opening night. "CinemaNet Europe is a groundbreaking initiative, and for Peace One Day to be the opening film of this launch year is a tremendous honor."

The eight films selected for the opening weekend reflected the diverse range of themes covered by contemporary European documentaries, and the aim of the initiative to bring the best of world documentaries to new cinema audiences.

In addition to Peace One Day, the opening weekend films included the Emmy Award-winning Slovakian film The Power of Good by Matej Minac, which tells the story of British stockbroker Nicholas Winton--"the British Schindler"--who saved 669 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia ; Jos de Putter's haunting, multi-award-winning Dutch film The Damned and the Sacred, which follows a children's dance troupe in Chechnya; the world premiere of Werner Herzog's high-definition production The White Diamond, in which the German director takes a voyage on an airship, tracking a friend's ill-fated Amazonian adventure; I Am from Nowhere, Austrian Geog Misch's examination of the effect of intensive media scrutiny on Andy Warhol's home town in Slovakia; France's My Louis Armstrong Years, by Mohamad Kounda, about a mother and her musical prodigy son; Fleurette, Portuguese director Sérgio Tréfaut's memorable attempt to understand the troubled past of his mother; and Spanish director José Sanchez Montes' documentary profiling Cuban pianist and singer Bola de Nieve.

The excitement of the opening festival had the film industry enthused about the future for independent films. "The launch is one of the first events which shows the potential of post-photochemical cinema," noted film historian Mark Cousins. "You could argue that because it means that more maverick work will get shown. It is the equivalent of Radio Caroline for music or the paperback revolution in books."

"This is a new channel of communication; it's deeply democratic and less market-driven," says Emma Davie, the UK representative for the European Documentary Network. "I believe people are ready for it. They want independent perspectives in the world, different visions that get to the audience without the intermediary of television or distributors. It's inspiring."

CinemaNet Europe is headed up by Kees Ryninks, who successfully launched Docuzone, which since 2002 has equipped 14 cinemas in the Netherlands with high-quality digital projectors. Docuzone now screens new documentaries every two weeks. It has sold more than 30,000 tickets to date and been instrumental in almost doubling Dutch documentary audiences in three years.

Following on her own research into the potential for cinema documentaries, Amy Hardie, head of the UK initiative Docspace, joined forces with Ryninks to raise money to take Docuzone to a pan-European level. After lengthy meetings and negotiations they succeeded in securing money from the European Union Media Programme and Scottish Screen. They changed the name from Docuzone to CinemaNet Europe, envisioning the future screening of other vulnerable genres such as animation and shorts.

In addition to locally produced films in each country, CinemaNet Europe will distribute at least 12 European documentary films in the first year, selected by an international jury representing partners from every country. The first to be screened is the Bulgarian doc Georgi and the Butterflies, directed by Andrey Paounov. Many of the countries are programming their own seasons to screen using the technology; the UK is planning an adventure sports season.

Hardie is keen on the opportunity to escape the stranglehold that Hollywood has on distribution. "Eighty percent of what we see on our screens comes from Hollywood," she notes. "That doesn't leave much room for other stories, other nations, other points of view. The digital technology makes this a financially viable local and international opportunity to get work to new audiences, who quite simply have not had the opportunity--ever--to see films like these in their local venues."

Hardie, Ryninks and others leading the CinemaNet Europe revolution have their work cut out for them. The scheme has seen an enormous number of independent cinemas coming forward wanting to participate, recognizing an easy, low-risk way to access many more films and secure more scheduling flexibility. Autonomous partners in each country are using public and private funding to transform specialist cinemas into digital cinemas.

But at the moment, most of the 180 cinemas signed up do not yet have the technology in place to join the network. Only a fraction participated in the opening weekend, screening on a mixture of formats including DVD, digital hard disk and high-definition digital tape, with just four cinemas joining the Q&A satellite link-up.

But Hardie remains enthusiastic and encouraged that their vision will be realized. "We may be at the cutting edge of technology, but at the forefront what's driving us forward is knowing that there are great films out there," she maintains. "That vision is what has driven all of the logistics to this point. I feel as though we've only begun to scratch the surface of the potential of digital exhibition."


Carol Nahra is a journalist and documentary producer based in London.