New Digital Films: Don't Like the Ending? Change It

WELCOME to the movie theater of the future. Inside, there won't be five or six screens but probably 40 or 50.

Patrons will sit in small rooms and watch films on high-definition video screens. Moviegoers may be able to choose which ending they want in a film. A theater owner who would like to turn a picture with marine-barracks language into a G-rated one, can, at the tap of a key, filter out offensive words.

The only recognizable thing may be the Milk Duds - for $8.95, no doubt.

Sound tantalizing? Maybe to moviegoers and theater owners. But the thought of being able to change elements of a movie worries some in Hollywood's creative community.

This week, the ``gee whiz'' potential of the cinema of the future and the clashes it may portend came one step closer to reality with the unveiling of a new approach to distributing films.

Pacific Bell, a California utility, and Alcatel Network Systems Inc., a Texas company, announced plans to deliver movies over high-speed phone lines to about a dozen California outlets this fall. (Music by satellite at the touch of a button, Page 11.)

The pilot project, the first of its kind in the nation, would replace the old-fashioned way of distributing movies, by film in a can, with a system that sends them digitally - and instantly - to theaters.

The new technology could dramatically alter the way films are produced, delivered, and even look. It typifies the kinds of changes that will be wrought along the much-touted ``information superhighway,'' for better or worse.

``When the leap comes, it will be extreme,'' says Larry Jacobson, senior vice president for design, development, and facilities with AMC Entertainment, a Kansas City, Mo.,-based theater chain. ``It will make a big difference.''

Under the Pacific Bell system, movie images would be scanned and digitized in a form that can be sent over phone lines and fiber optic cables to a central computer. Theater owners would then call up the movie they wanted by tapping commands into a terminal at the cinema. The system would do away with the costly method of moving film by mail, truck, or messenger. Alcatel officials estimate that it will cut $750,000 to $1.2 million off the cost of distributing a new movie, typically $3 million to $4 million.

New place to watch sports

One person at the control terminal could run an entire cinema complex. Because the images are stored digitally, there would be no problems with scratched or faded film. Theater owners could use their screens for video-conferencing or high-definition broadcasts of sporting events during non-movie hours.

``It is really an early application of high-definition television,'' says Larry Corbett, a product line manager with Alcatel, which is providing the switching equipment for the test.

Alcatel and Pacific Bell officials claim that the digitized movies will deliver sharper pictures and truer colors than conventional films. Others say the images will not be better, just different: sharper and less grainy, yes, but lacking the softness and some of the richness of print film.

All this digitized imagery won't fall from the sky for free. Theaters will have to install new projectors and luminescent screens - at a cost of $100,000 per screen or more.

Even so, promoters of the technology contend that it will yield substantial savings over conventional delivery methods. Everyone concedes, however, that it will be several years before digital distribution becomes widespread.

Because it is a public utility, Pacific Bell still has to get regulatory approval to do the test. It plans to work initially with 10 theaters and two sports bars, probably in southern California.

While the new technology promises easier and more economical distribution, it is the potential for controlling and manipulating film that excites and scares some in the entertainment industry.

Custom-made story lines

Studios that want to change endings or scenes in movies that fail at the box office could do so relatively easily, since they would not have to make a lot of new film prints and distribute them. Movie-goers might be able to choose from one of several different endings shot in advance by punching buttons on their theater seats.

Trailers could be tailored and targeted to different audiences. At the tap of a computer key, foul language could be deleted or English-speaking films changed to Spanish. ``You could totally manipulate a film,'' Mr. Jacobson says.

Although studios and film executives would presumably sign off on any changes, the potential for altering movies makes some directors, writers, and others worry about artistic integrity. It raises eyebrows in an industry where many consider film the marrow of the medium.

``It raises strong creative concerns,'' says Cheryl Rhoden of the Writers Guild of America. ``It is clear that we need to have some communication on this new delivery system.''

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