CinemaNet Europe

A Digital Doc Armada

A growing eclectic force is thriving in Europe’s media landscape. Throughout the EU (European Union), people from Edinburgh to Vienna have known about it for almost four years now. This new wave is the feature documentary, and throughout the EU, the genre is staking out a respectable wedge of the theatrical market through a new digital cinema network called CinemaNet Europe (CNE). The network is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world and Canadian documentary filmmakers, producers, distributors and exhibitors might find some much needed inspiration from this digital doc armada. As our culturecrats unimaginatively grasp at inadequate commercial models and moviegoers grow increasingly displeased with theatres devoid of Canadian content, policy makers and cinema exhibitors might do well to have a closer look at CNE’s innovative response to the critical importance of nurturing domestic doc voices through an enterprise which joins public and private forces in a win-win celebration of documentary cinema.

The European Digital Doc Revolution: Content and Context

In 2002, Dutch documentary filmmaker and producer Kees Ryninks surveyed the cinemascape of his home country and came up with an idea. He would create a three-year pilot exhibition project under the wings of the robust European Media Fund and Netherlands Film Fund. His plan was born out of knowledge that should be familiar to Canadian docuphiles: polling shows (now as it did then) that there is a market for documentary cinema teeming with fans hungry for content; hundreds of fine documentary films are produced every year around the world; and, aside from the odd rupture in the Hollywood-dominated commercial bubble and the condensed programs of film festivals, there are very few docs being screened in most markets. Given these facts, it seemed utterly nonsensical to Ryninks that there was demand and available content, yet there were scarce venues programming content to meet the demand. Realizing the absurdity of this configuration, as many have in Canada, Ryninks decided to do something about it with a new approach that would bring artists, government and business together to correct this gross error in supply and demand.

That summer Ryninks assembled a small team, planned out a digital distribution network for documentary films and dubbed it DocuZone. After securing government funding, they approached theatres in the Netherlands with a proposition: exhibitors that agreed to screen a certain amount
of the network’s documentaries during peak hours for select runs would receive a complimentary installation of the newest technology in digital projection. To call the pilot a success would be a misrepresentation. DocuZone never even needed to pay the compensation money to the cinemas that had been a safeguard written into the agreement to offset box-office decline. In fact, the numbers at the end of the first year yielded results that were fifty percent past projections.

This spurred interest in other European countries and two years later, CinemaNet Europe emerged as the EU-wide version of DocuZone. The goal of using digital technology to distribute commercially and exhibit domestic docs remained intact and on November 12, 2004, the network went live with its first weekend release. Ryninks’s innovative pilot project in Holland would grow to become the largest digital cinema network in the world, spanning Europe with partners in five countries representing hundreds of screens.

Content Delivered: Programmer Huub Roelvink

CinemaNet Europe is more than a digital distribution network for documentary cinema. It is also a system of partner programmes in various EU countries whose semi-autonomous members meet several times a year to programme the CNE films together for the coming year. The mechanics of CNE are relatively straightforward. There are five
partner countries currently involved in the project, all agreeing to put forward one main CNE doc each month to their respective cinema markets. This monthly, shared doc is the only real obligation partners have although there is significant overlap in the other films that end up in CNE cinemas throughout the countries. In Amsterdam, the founding partner of the whole network, Cinema Delicatessen (born out of the pilot project, DocuZone), is a small outfit with two floors of buzzing offices around the corner from the famous Rijksmuseum. Its programmer Huub Roelvink also programmes CNE with representatives from the other partner organizations. Roelvink, whose formal education is in Social Anthropology and whose professional background is in programming art-house cinema, explains, “The idea was: here’s some very expensive equipment you can use, in exchange we give our programming to you and you have to play our content. But a lot of cinemas were very sensitive to keeping their independence with respect to programming, so the only deal is that they have to show the monthly films; but the rest of the content that we offer them, they don’t necessarily have to take. We wanted to get rid of this dependence and wanted to be taken seriously as content providers—so we have good content if you want it.” And it turns out the cinemas in Europe want it; nearly 300 screens across the five markets are currently showing CNE docs. Along with agreeing to screen the required film each month, the cinemas pay a small fee to use the digital technologies amounting to no more than a few thousand Euros per year. The result is an effective intervention into the commercial market. CNE has programmed all European films so far and, while the mandate of the network is shifting to include foreign docs, it is clear that at least part of the impetus for the initiative was to have a fighting chance against Hollywood’s hegemony in the global cinema market. As Roelvink explains, when describing the funding behind CNE, as embodied in the European Union’s Media Program, “All the distributors get money out of it as well if you distribute European films. It’s the answer to America by the European Union.” Fighting Hollywood with domestic docs may sound like a crazy idea, but given the tremendous success of CNE’s films, perhaps it is one tactic Canada should consider importing.

Take a film like We Feed the World (Austria, 2005), which was shown in its domestic market as well as in other partner countries like Germany. Moving through the network, it built momentum and due to the digital nature of the actual product and distribution, several cinemas could screen it simultaneously with little or no added cost. Clearly the formula worked for We Feed the World. It is the most successful Austrian doc ever made, seen by 300,000 moviegoers at home and an additional 200,000 in Germany. Once the cinemas see the positive box-office results for the monthly film, they can have CNE distribute even more doc content to them through the digital network. “At the end of the day,” says Roelvink, “it really depends on how much the theatres believe in the films that decides
whether they put them on daily screenings or not. Some of the films they’ll put on daily screenings, but other films they’ll only put on a couple of times a week and see how it goes. It really depends on the cinema and the city as well.” It also depends on the partner organization in each country as they all have their own model for implementing the mandate of CNE; in Germany for instance, it is a private company. Roelvink describes that, “What connects everyone is that we use the same equipment and we show the same films together. So basically, we have content exchange.”

As well as providing cinemas with great equipment and content, the network is pioneering exciting, digitally-fuelled events like the live audience Q&A with iconic director Werner Herzog during the CNE weekend release of his film White Diamond (Germany, 2004). Herzog was able to answer questions from audiences and appear live on the screen in scores of cinemas throughout the network following the debut of his new doc. If you ever thought experiencing documentary film in a theatre was a boring proposition, think again.

Docs Nudge into the Commercial Market

The proactive philosophy behind CinemaNet Europe is to create an alternative system to the current film distribution and exhibition schema. One major hurdle for documentary distribution and exhibition is cost. The industry standard film format in commercial cinema is celluloid and 35mm film prints are expensive to produce as well as to transport. Moreover, documentary films are often shot in digital formats to begin with, meaning they must go through the costly process of being blown up to 35mm. All these hurdles mean that many productions with limited budgets (the majority of documentary films unfortunately fit into this category) are excluded from the final leg of the arduous filmmaking process: exhibition.

By developing a system that is exclusively built with digital technologies —from the ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber line) networks that distribute the docs to the $250,000 projectors they’re beamed out of—CinemaNet virtually eliminates the problem of cost discrimination for docs in the commercial cinema market. In order to be part of CNE, cinemas sign five-year contracts which protect its partners financially. Given that the industry is risky to begin with, a project like CinemaNet Europe would not have legs if it weren’t for government involvement. This Public Private Partnership (PPP) is all about wading into the uncertain waters of documentary distribution and exhibition by appealing to the business bottom line while fulfilling government mandates in providing and promoting the arts.

Ezra Winton is the co-founder of Cinema Politica, the world’s largest grassroots documentary screening network. He is currently finishing a Postdoctoral Fellowship at NSCAD University (Halifax) where he is researching and writing about documentary, social movements, globalization and world cinema.

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