Is that all folks? The End . . . Of film as we know it - Enter digital

Imagine. You're riding through the jungle, surrounded by the chirping of unknown insects, the howling of unidentified night creatures, and the air is heavy with strange, exotic perfumes. The ground beneath you is rough, untraveled, and the ride is bumpy. Ahead, crystal-clear water drips from huge, dazzling green-and-red plant leaves. You rub your eyes, not believing the vivid clarity of the scene. You are moving through a pristine Eden.

Suddenly, behind you, an avalanche of sound engulfs your caravan and the ground heaves with the force of a devastating earthquake. You are nearly thrown from your seat.

An expensive African safari? Try an $8 matinee showing of the sequel to "Mighty Joe Young."

Yes, if technology mavens have their way, this is the promise and power of digital cinema, the first major technological innovation to hit the corner movie house, essentially since the early days of Thomas Edison.

What it means is the elimination of that staple of the film industry - film itself. In a purely digital (electronic) world, everything is, well, digital - from the shooting of a movie to its editing, satellite distribution, and eventual projection in theaters.

Equally important, digital will introduce a vast capability to instantaneously deliver simultaneous bits of information ranging from aromas to sound and visuals as well as seat control.

Movies could be simultaneously sent to many cities, and the same film could play in a multiplex in different languages with the flick of a switch.

Beyond cool Dolby sound systems

Until now, significant innovations on the actual movie experience have pretty much been limited to spiffy new drink holders, cool updated Dolby sound systems, bigger screens, and raked seating, leaving how the image gets on the screen the same.

For nearly a century, moviegoers have had to put up with scratchy, faded prints with mismatched colors, not to mention the agony of waiting for first-run flicks to come to their remote city the old-fashioned way, reel by reel.

"Electronic movies" hope to change all that. Hovering like a distant grail, digital cinema has been on the fringes of practicality for a while, promising to revolutionize the movie experience. Up to now, it has not delivered.

At a recent demonstration mounted in Las Vegas for the national convention of movie house owners (called ShoWest), at least two companies showed that they finally have the goods to be taken seriously.

In a side-by-side showdown (film versus digital), the two companies, Texas Instruments and CineComm, demonstrated that moviegoers will no longer have to put up with grainy, scratchy prints or fading, bleeding colors.

Digital hues were deep and true, the all-important skin tones were on target, and the overall clarity was dubbed a breakthrough by audience members.

"It's great," enthused Ken Higgins, vice president and international film buyer at the Dallas-based Cinemark theater chain. "Digital will happen, and now it's only about three to five years away," he reflects.

'Star Wars' prequel gives digital a boost

No less a film luminary than "Star Wars" creator George Lucas makes clear that the age of digital is upon us now, and that if he has anything to say about it, it will happen sooner rather than later.

"I'm very enthusiastic about the digital cinema," he announced to the thousands of ShoWest exhibitors.

Accordingly, he has decreed that his anticipated blockbuster, "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," will give the digital industry a boost with a special digital-only showing at four selected sites on June 18.

The next two "Star Wars" prequels will be shot entirely in digital. And as a nudge to theater owners to get on board, the creator of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker also has proclaimed that only theaters with the latest technical requirements will be allowed to show "Phantom Menace."

The legendary filmmaker maintains he is pushing the digital age for simple reasons, "quality, the savings in cost, and the ability to do things that just aren't possible today."

Having said all that, there are significant obstacles to face if digital cinema sweeps the country. Rob Berger, proud owner of the recently renovated 1928 Lincoln Movie Palace in Cheyenne, Wyo., is clear about his future.

"Digital movies are coming," Mr. Berger says simply, "and we'll be ready and waiting." But the big cloud on his horizon is money.

He just spent $200,000 to update his vintage cinema. Making a theater fully digital-ready is estimated to cost about $100,000. "Where is that money going to come from?" he wonders.

While digital cinema promises to save on a variety of movie costs such as film stock and prints, movie-house owners say they aren't ready to bankroll their end of the transition just yet. "There are still significant, unanswered questions," says Cinemark's Higgins.

In response, studios are floating a number of cost-sharing options. CineComm has announced it will bankroll everything from installation of digital projectors to satellite delivery on a pay-per-view basis.

Threat of piracy

But most industry observers predict that if the arrival of digital cinema is delayed, it will not be over money but a more complex issue that has troubled Hollywood's creative community for some time - piracy.

Digital transmission raises the specter of perfect pirated copies of movies being snatched off satellites around the world, devastating the legitimate movie industry.

The chairman of the Motion Picture Association, Jack Valenti, maintains that without significantly improved security safeguards, digital will be dead in the water.

"Unless we find suitable technological armor to protect the digital movie, we will soon be standing in the ruins of a once-great enterprise," he announced to the ShoWest crowd, adding "the defeat of both earthbound and cyberspace thieves is my highest priority in the 21st century."

At least one company, CineComm, has unveiled its own proprietary encryption technology aimed at safely transmitting movies. But the possibility of only a single privately owned security system doesn't satisfy most in the industry, who say that an openly available, secure system is the only solution.

Theater owners prepare

Meanwhile, theater owners across the country are preparing for the inevitable. In Wyoming, Berger says he's ready for the first challenge laid out by Mr. Lucas. "We're ready for this 'Star Wars,' " he says, noting that he has just bankrolled a new digital-sound system, not to mention high-backed stadium seats with convenient cup holders. He's still considering the next step.

His town had to wait two weeks before the hit film "Titanic" arrived. Digital cinema would change all that.

"It sure would be nice," the young entrepreneur agrees, "but we'll just have to wait and see."

Digital moviegoing will have these advantages:

Picture. No more grainy, scratchy, or faded film prints. Images won't deteriorate no matter how many times they're shown.

Sound. More tracks of sound, for even greater realism.

Availability. Theaters in out-of-the-way places could show new films on the day they premire.

Aromas. It would be possible to add aromas to match the action on-screen.

Motion. The possibility of programming seats to move along with the action on-screen.

Costs. In the long run, digital will save money: No more printing copies of films and shipping them to theaters around the world.

... but these issues may cause problems:

Costs. In the short run, it will cost up to $100,000 per theater to upgrade to digital equipment.

Piracy. Studios want assurances that perfect digital copies of their movies won't be stolen as they are transmitted by satellite to theaters.

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