At the movies, digital 'revolution' gets mixed reviews

New technology on view at California theater may reinvent filmgoing

First TV. Now, the movies.

It's still just in the demonstration stages, but digital technology for films is already being touted is the biggest thing to hit theaters since Jujubes.

And why not? The picture is clearer, the colors are more vibrant, and theater owners don't have to store cans and cans of fragile film reels to put on a show, digital boosters say.

Yet it's not quite that simple. At four theaters around New York and Los Angeles, digital versions of "Episode I - The Phantom Menace" are being shown to inquisitive crowds - and the reaction has been anything but unanimous. "You couldn't pay me to watch a movie in digital again," says one woman here.

Perhaps it's not surprising that any attempt to tinker with Americans' movie experience would meet with some resistance - especially here in the quintessential L.A. film studio town. But the growing clamor for digital technology is about more than just pixels and projectors. Digital could not only keep films looking fresh decades after they were shot, it could also affect theaters' choice of films.

For now, however, moviegoers here are most interested in the quality of the picture - and the novelty of the device. In the lobby, a group has formed around the projectionist's booth, where the technical supervisors from Texas Instruments (one of the two companies vying to develop the industry standard) are talking high tech.

"The whole process is completely digital, starting with the download from the satellite and all the way to your eyes," says a supervisor, explaining that this prototype takes the film from a satellite and stores it on an array of computer hard drives with enormous memory.

Few in the assembly fully understand what's going on, but they can't seem to get enough of all the technical mumbo-jumbo. Jargon flying at the breathless audience is greeted with the sort of rapt attention ordinarily reserved for Oscar-night star gazing.

Inside the theater, though, the air of reverence disappears. At a midday showing of the new "Star Wars," verbal fisticuffs fly after the lights come up.

"You can see all the pixels, all the lines," fumes Nikki, a sixth-grade teacher from Los Angeles, adding, "Film is the past, present, and future of movies."

Her husband, Paul Nascimento, is a bit more conciliatory. "It was very vivid," he says. "The colors were really saturated and true," although, he adds after a glance from his wife, "you could see all the little blocks if you were really looking."

Others agree with Mr. Nascimento. "The colors are so rich they look a bit like the old Technicolor from the early days of color film, where everything was sort of ridiculously colorful," says Paul Carroll, a member of a local projectionist's union. He says he saw no lines or pixels, but concedes, "Maybe it's because I was sitting in the rear of the theater. Where were you sitting?"

"Up close, the way you want to be in a 'Star Wars' movie," Nikki answers.

Even so, the creator of "Star Wars" is one of digital's biggest backers. Although many filmmakers say digital lacks the finesse of film or is incapable of the artistry possible with celluloid, George Lucas has been converted and has now committed to filming "Episode II" almost entirely in digital formats. "Digital is the future," he announced to a gathering of theater owners in March.

FOR film editor Craig Ridenour, all the technology doesn't excite him as much as the potential consumer benefits he sees down the line.

For instance, with digital movies, he suggests that movie houses normally committed to the big blockbusters could set aside a showing or two each week for an art-house-type film. "They wouldn't have to worry about finding, storing, or maintaining some old print. They could just choose a great movie, pull it off the satellite, and show it," he says. And, he adds, they wouldn't have to worry about the print degrading. "Every time they show the film, it would be like the first time."

As far as how digital looks, he says, "I don't think it's any different to watch than film, for the average filmgoer."

While theater owners grapple with the approximately $100,000 it will cost to convert a theater to the digital format, they see the promise digital brings. No more storage, no more film breakage or meltdown, not to mention dust, tears, scratches, or rips in the film.

Digital seems to be doing a good job so far, according to Osvaldo Hernandez, assistant manager of the AMC Burbank 14, site of the current digital tryout. Every weekend showing was sold out, and weekdays have done triple the business of the previous nondigital week.

While most moviegoers seem pleased, and management is riding high, there are still technical hurdles. Even at the demonstration, there were glitches. The digital projector was tempermental, and slides for local advertisers kept ghosting over trailers. And during the digital projection, an old-fashioned projector was at the ready.

"Just in case," says a Texas Instruments representative. "Just in case."

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