uk cinemaEXCLUSIVE: The British government has extended its Digital Screen Network scheme, giving multiplexes which have missed their film quotas time to catch up. The DSN scheme will now run until September 2012. Multiplexes that joined the DSN promised to show a quota of specialised films in exchange for free digital equipment. Instead, cinema chains including Cineworld, Odeon and Vue upgraded their DSN screens to 3D. Whereas other exhibitors have had to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds installing 3D digital projectors and screens, the big chains have been given a massive 3D leg-up courtesy of the public purse. It costs between £70,000 and £100,000 to convert each screen to digital.

The UKFC says it wants to give underperforming cinemas time to catch up with programming commitments. Agreements are being extended by 16 months. Cinemas will be required to show a revised number of specialised screenings each week based on their previous two years’ performance. Otherwise, UKFC could still take their equipment away.

The big three UK cinema chains – Odeon, Vue and Cineworld – were awarded 55% of the £12 million ($18 million) DSN digital systems. The DSN covers approximately 8% of screens in 1/3 of UK cinemas. Cineworld, which boasted recently of the profits it has been making through 3D, accounts for 30% of the DSN screens. Letting multiplexes show 3D Hollywood blockbusters on DSN screens has given them an unfair advantage, one exhibitor tells me. “We were all very cynical about the DSN kick-starting multiplexes showing specialised films,” another arthouse exhibitor says. “The Film Council tried to do something audacious.”

Extending the DSN for another 16 months will come as a relief to some arthouse circuits. They signed up to such high targets back in 2007 when DSN launched that the extension will give them breathing space. Although some art cinemas have been devoting up to 90% of their DSN screen time to specialised films, agreements they signed up to called for up to 94%.

The Film Council says it could still confiscate digital projectors if multiplexes miss their extended targets. I will eat my bowler hat if it does.