It's no Hollywood dream: Digital movies are here

If your eyes glaze over at the mention of "digital cinema" ("too technical"), consider this: They probably widened at the meticulous detail and imaginative effects of "Toy Story 2." If history is any guide, they'll pop at the new worlds imagined by George Lucas for his coming "Star Wars: Episode II." Both films are entirely digital, and more important, say the experts, they represent the moviemaking of the future.

Digital cinema made news last year after Lucas arranged special digital showings of his "Star Wars: Episode I." Moviegoers finally had the opportunity to ooh and ah over the detail of the new technology. But the issue became serious business for exhibitors and filmmakers when Lucas announced that his next "Star Wars" prequel will be created entirely in a digital format, and anyone who wants to show it must have the proper digital equipment.

A frenzy of speculation immediately ensued over whether the costs will make the switch impossible and whether it's really necessary (as in "Will the public notice the difference?").

For the story on where the industry has come since that Lucas-generated gee-whiz moment, this year's ShoWest offers insights. This annual gathering of the National Association of Theater Owners is a perfect place to judge just about any trend in the film world. The verdict here on digital cinema? A year ago, it was a novelty. This year, it's a given. Now it's all about the nuts and bolts.

Dave Karlman, chief technology officer for Real Image Digital Cinema, which makes digital projection systems, says there are only 12 fully digital systems in place in the United States now, with a strong demand for more. "We can't make the [projection systems] fast enough," he adds, primarily because the chip at the heart of the system is expensive and time-consuming to produce. "There is a pent-up demand to get the systems produced."

No fewer than five companies set up shop at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel Casino Resort to announce their intention to be part of not just the future but the present of the digital cinema revolution.

While Real Image provides the projection systems, AndAction is intent on capitalizing on the possibilities provided by broadband connections directly to movie houses. "We present the lobby of the future," says CEO Craig Winter. "Once we get a secure, broadband connection, we can deliver a total experience," he says, pointing to the interactive panels in his display.

Consumers can request personalized, interactive movie trailers and video games based on movies, as well as buy a T-shirt or a movie on DVD. Mr. Winter says the idea is to get people out of their houses. "We don't want to turn the movie theater into an arcade, but people will have to see the megaplex as an entertainment venue, not just a place to go in to a movie and leave," Winter says.

The ability to screen digital films will almost certainly move faster than the filmmaking side, if for no other reason than the theater exhibitor's need to be ready for whatever format filmmakers provide. In fact, Mr. Karlman says, "Film and digital cinema [projection systems] will probably exist side by side in most movie houses for a long time."

With filmmakers such as Lucas leading the way, not to mention the lure of lowered production costs for all-digital productions, film is giving way. "Digital is certainly the future of filmmaking," says Conrad Hall, an Oscar-winning cinematographer ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") most recently nominated for this year's "American Beauty."

Many directors already create large portions of their film in digital and pay additional costs to transfer the product to film.

"Many directors would be very happy if they didn't have to go back to film again," says James Korris, chief executive officer of the University of Southern California's Entertainment Technology Center, and not solely for economic reasons. "Trying to make the film look good after all these digital effects are done ... is a challenge many would be happy to eliminate," he adds.

However, industry veteran Hall is skeptical about a mass defection from film. "It will be a slow transition," he says. "We've got a hundred years of working with film, figuring out what it can do. It will take a while for the same level of artistry to develop with digital technology."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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