Petra Pettersson
Managing Director of Studio 1 2 3, Porvoo Finland
Deputy member of SEOL ry The Finnish Cinema Exhibitor's Association

Digitalizing Finland from an exhibitor point of view

Writing this article is definitely not one of the easiest tasks that I’ve had in my time working in the cinema business as an exhibitor. Especially when the title is “Women in Digital” and digital cinema is still an egg not yet hatched in Finland.

Finland is a small country with 5.2 million inhabitants and 221 cinemas with a total of 341 screens. The total number of admissions in 2006 was 6.9 million. Most of the cinemas in Finland are single-screen theatres and work in rural areas. Finnkino is a major market leader with multiplexes in 9 locations.

The Cinema I run is a three-screen theatre with 99/98/78 seats. We operate in a small town in southern Finland with 47.429 inhabitants. We have approximately 50-55,000 admissions annually which is a small number compared to the major cities in Europe, including Helsinki with 2.2 million admissions in 2005. But with 47,583 admissions in 2005 we were the 20th largest cinema in Finland.

To date major digital rollout in Finland has only been a dream – and it will be so for the near future at least. At the moment we have one digital screen in the whole country. This screen started operating in December 2006.

The largest problems are of course the same as in any other place: how can we afford the investment, given the expensive equipment involved? Will there be digital prints available? etc. But we also have the problem of single-screen exhibitors in a large, fragmented area. Will it be worthwhile to invest more than 100,000 euros per screen in a town where there are less than 10,000 admissions annually? It’s a huge risk – whoever pays. However it works out, it has to be a way that is equal for all, multiplex or single-screen. Not one that just rewards multiplexes, forgetting about those who offer their territories this wonderful form of culture.

From an exhibitor’s point of view, it would be a certain suicide to try to pay for the conversion individually. And as we can’t afford the rollout by ourselves, how do we do it? There have been suggestions of local funding (cities, companies), national funding (the Ministry of Education being most mentioned) and of course private funding. The biggest problem in my opinion is that there is not enough material available for those who would like to know more about digitalisation. Why not try to find the best possible solutions and live with it?
I know most of my colleagues think of this as something that might happen in 10-15-20 years, not realizing the speed of conversion throughout the world, not taking it as something that is really on our doorstep already.

At the moment we are investigating the possibilities of different forms of financial help for cinemas of different sizes. As we all know, the investments are huge and at the moment there is not enough experience on the market to tell us how to proceed to make the best choices. Mostly I fear for all the small rural areas where the theatre may be the only one within several miles? Where the movie is shown months after the premiere and you could already buy it or rent it. Where the print is often so scratched that it makes the atmosphere special. Where going to the movies is really an experience, not just a way of spending Saturday night. This might be a bigger threat than the VHS and DVD revolutions were to these locations.

Of course we have alternative content also, but if our major income is from showing films, how can we suddenly change our image and function to being something else? How do we get the permission to show the movie on only a few nights of the week as we have alternative content for our audience on other nights? How do we know that it will work? These are questions that no-one is prepared to answer. And still these are the biggest questions for those who have made their living in this business for years. And especially here: you might be the 2nd or even the 3rd generation running the same cinema – would you like to lose your legacy?

I know it will take time before we reach the point of not receiving any more prints in the way we do now, but still the day might come sooner than we expect. And I would not like to be the one explaining to the customers that we’re not able to show the movie as it is only available in digital.

Maybe my article wasn’t so much about women in digital, but gives you an insight of the thoughts of facing with the reality of conversion and the problems we face daily dealing with digital cinema.