Digital cinema is the hot topic of the movie industry these days. In the trade papers and at industry events the talk is of studios such as Sony and The Walt Disney Company scrambling to be the first to send movies directly to home computers.
First-time directors are shooting entire digital movies on the budget that used to buy a few rolls of 35-mm film. But for the average theatergoer, who has been promised better picture quality and more choices - such as live simulcast sports and concert events - the progress of digital cinema has been frustratingly slow.
That may be about to change. Legendary film director George Lucas has announced he's "gone digital." The next two episodes of Lucas's "Star Wars" series will be entirely digital, shot without film, and now he wants to speed up the rollout of digital projection systems in theaters across the country.
To make his point, he's announced that theaters without digital projectors by 2005 won't be able to show "Star Wars" episode No. 3. The industry is gulping - and rolling up its sleeves. In the past 10 days, two major players have made proposals to get the ball rolling.
Last week at ShoWest, the exhibitors' annual trade event in Las Vegas, Technicolor (a leader in 35-mm film technology) announced that within a year it would install 1,000 digital projectors in theaters across the United States. Boeing Co. joined the chorus with a projector leasing proposal that would drastically reduce the cash outlay for theater owners. To demonstrate the strength of studio enthusiasm, Miramax arranged a screening at the convention of its upcoming family film "Spy Kids," using all digital technology. The film was shot without film using a digital camera, transmitted to the site by satellite, and shown using a digital projector.
The move to digital: push or shove?
"This is the future," says Mike Gill, president of Miramax L.A. "Six months ago, people were saying it would take five years to get to this point, but here we are. We love that there are no more cans of film to fall off trucks."
Studios like Miramax, who will benefit from the considerable cost of producing film prints, have been wildly enthusiastic. At the final evening ShoWest banquet, Warner Brothers CEO Barry Meyer made a point of saying that "we are leading the way into digital film." A foot of movie film costs about $1 to buy and process, compared with 1.5 cents for digital tape, John Galt, senior vice-president of Panavision, told The Associated Press earlier this year. Studios would also save on the costs of shipping film canisters to theaters.
Director Robert Rodriguez added that the technology finally allows audiences to see what he created.
"The satellite transmission lets me show the movie I shot, with all the colors just the way I shot them," says the creator of "Spy Kids." "I'm happy to be on the cutting edge, but I'm really happy to see that the film I shot is the one that's shown in theaters."
All along, the theater owners who will have to install and maintain the costly new digital systems, have asked: Who will pay? At current prices of $130,000 for a digital system with a two- to four-year shelf life, versus $30,000 for a 35-mm projector with decades of working life, the math is daunting.
"It's too expensive," says Annette Ashurst, a booking agent for small theaters all over Georgia. "It's just the big guys who want this, and they're just bullies."
Her husband and business partner, Buddy Ashurst, says things are moving too fast for the small exhibitors. "If they went to this system now, it would put the independent theaters out of business," he says.
"Everyone who's not one of those 1,000 [digital projectors] is just going to sit and watch what happens," agrees Gary Moore, president of Premiere Cinema Corporation, a 108-theater chain in Texas. "I don't know anyone who's actually going to digital."
However, he concedes the change is going to be hard to resist. "The 800-pound gorillas always drive the industry," he says. The studios and big names such as Lucas have the clout to force it.
Haydn Silleck, the head of Colorado Cinema Holdings, says his chain isn't going digital tomorrow, but that doesn't mean that this new push won't affect him. "Technicolor's announcement is a step in the right direction," Mr. Silleck says. He's already opened talks between his 81-screen chain and Technicolor about participating in the initial rollout. "The potential is intriguing."
Beyond the question of costs, theater owners wonder whether studios will be able to supply digital films and other entertainments quickly enough for exhibitors who make the commitment. And they point out that another film industry titan, Steven Spielberg, has publicly come out in support of 35-mm film over digital.
"The challenge is on our technology development," says Chris Cookson, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Warner Bros. "We have to make every step in this process so overwhelmingly appealing ... that they won't be able to resist the new technology."
'We can't damage what succeeds right now'
Most observers point out that even if the transition starts immediately, most theaters will have to handle both digital and film formats for the foreseeable future.
"For digital to succeed, we can't damage what succeeds right now," says Rob Hummel, Sony Electronics senior vice president for digital cinema.
After all, caution some, this isn't the first time a new technology, touted as the future of the cinema world, has failed to catch on.
Flash back to 1964. Billed as the "future of the cinema," a new technology aired four performances of Richard Burton's Broadway production of "Hamlet" in 986 theaters. After three additional airings, it completely disappeared into the dustbin of technology's history.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor