BY ALEX BEN BLOCK
The conversion of theatrical motion picture exhibition from the century-old celluloid standard to high quality digital video can’t come soon enough for director James Cameron, who has been working on what he calls d-cinema for over a decade. He already shoots everything using digital capture and 3-D cameras he helped develop. To complete the circle, Cameron wants to deliver and exhibit in digital as well.
But as with any major change in the industry, the gears have been moving slowly. Since George Lucas pioneered the first digital cinema release in 1999 with Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace on four screens, the production and projection technology has advanced but the conversion has been slowed by a lack of common standards and the question of financing.
The price tag for converting one screen in a multiplex is close to $100,000, which would require a $3.6 billion investment from the industry to change over the 36,000 screens in the U.S. While there is a considerable savings potential–a 35 mm print now costs $1,600–the rub was that most of the cost of the conversion would fall to the theaters, while most of the savings would accrue to the distributors.
After nearly four years of squabbling, the studios and exhibitors finally reached a deal in the summer of 2005. Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a venture funded by the six major film companies, issued a set of technical guidelines for the conversion. With that in place, a model for financing the move was hammered out. Technicolor Digital, AccessIT (a joint venture of projector manufacturer Christie and AIX) and National CineMedia will act as “bankers” for the conversion, raising the capital to buy and install equipment in theaters. In return, these middlemen will collect “virtual print fees” from distributors of about $1,000 for each “print” of every movie for the next ten to twenty years and, in most cases, sign maintenance agreements with the theaters for the digital systems.
Jack Kline, president and COO of Christie USA, predicts that the company will convert 4,000 screens over the next 24 months and that the impact will be felt by consumers beginning in 2007. “This is the biggest thing since talkies,” he says.
The greatest benefit of digital cinema will be realized by distributors who no longer have to make prints and can save an estimated $4.8 million on a 3,000-screen release. Movies would be distributed via an encoded system by satellite, fiber optics or a hand-delivered computer hard drive about the size of a hardcover book.
Although technical guidelines have been established, there is still some debate over the resolution of the image from the 2K video projector developed in 2002 versus the pending 4K model. AccessIT is already installing digital cinema systems built around Christie 2K projectors but competitors Technicolor Digital and National CineMedia have been testing alternative projectors from Barco, NEC, Sanyo and Sony, which recently released the first 4K projectors.
“A lot of folks are getting ahead of themselves,” cautions Kurt Hall, chairman and CEO of National CineMedia, the company overseeing the digital conversion for Regal, Cinemark and AMC Theaters, representing over 44 percent of U.S. theaters. “I think the technology has made significant progress over the last couple of years but it’s still not ready for primetime.”
Cameron counters that there’s no need to delay any longer waiting on the 4K projector. “I think 4K is a waste of time,” he says. “You don’t need to be schlepping around four times the data to get a result that the average person would not be able to see. All the film people, all the DPs, all the film purists all poo poo that, but that’s the truth. 2K is more than sufficient.”
While digital cinema could be a boon for the industry, what about for the films’ creators? Cameron believes digital presentation is “definitely better” than film. “It’s not better in ‘revolutionary’ terms, the way color was better than black and white for the average audience. Digital falls into a different category. It’s a little bit like going from analog to digital sound. Some people could hear it and some people just didn’t care. The digital image is crisper. It’s much more stable. There is no jitter or weave. Obviously, it doesn’t degrade over the run of the picture, which is a big deal if you have the kind of picture that is meant to run for a long time.”
Digital exhibition also presents the potential to open theaters up to a greater number of titles. “I think more filmmakers will have access to theaters than they do today,” says Hall. “The studios and other distributors will be able to rationalize putting more films into theaters than today because there will no longer be this huge distribution cost to cover.”
An exhibitor will be able to run all rooms of a multiplex out of one server. That way a theater could quickly move films around from room to room, depending on the productivity of the film at any given moment, even on a day-to-day basis. This is a huge advantage for exhibitors that could also benefit directors.
It could help a “small film that most people won’t see,” predicts director Taylor Hackford, “a sleeper like the Blair Witch Project, for instance, that people aren’t expecting. A multiplex would take one or two prints. When the public surprises exhibitors, digital distribution would allow them to immediately fill other screens with a hot title.”
But not everyone is convinced that digital cinema is the way to go. Director Steven Spielberg, most notably, has remained a vocal advocate of film. Spielberg still shoots, edits and presents only on film, according to his DreamWorks/Amblin spokesman Marvin Levy. “Steven just feels there’s something about the feel and smell of film that he likes. It’s worked for him his whole life, so he still does it the way he’s always done it.”
“It’s a very nostalgic thing,” adds Hackford, “because we all love the quality of film. And it’s been a part of our business for a long time. But I believe we’re going to be getting similar quality, in fact maybe greater quality, from the high definition format with all its accompanying benefits.”
One benefit of digital cinema that is not being widely discussed, according to Cameron, is the fact that digital projectors can run up to 144 frames per second. “That’s twice the speed of a Showscan projector. If I were making 2-D films right now,” he says, “I would shoot it at 48 frames a second, which these projectors can handle. I would extract my 24-frame master from that to release in 35 mm, and I would run the film in digital theaters at 48 frames. It would be so clear it would almost look like it was in 3-D.”
What Cameron is really hoping is that the conversion will open the way for 3-D movies, which are an added benefit of digital systems. Early results from a digital IMAX presentation of Polar Express and 3-D runs of The Chronicles of Narnia and Chicken Little have been promising. Cameron sees 3-D as a way to differentiate the theatrical experience from what consumers can get at home and thereby help reinvigorate exhibition.
Whether films are shown in digital or conventional format, Cameron believes the filmmaker’s mission remains the same. “It comes down to the viewing experience and right now there are huge debates raging about what the theatrical exhibition experience is and how can it survive. My response to that whole thing is, ‘Let’s remember our roots in showmanship. Let’s put on a good show at the theaters.’
“Digital cinema helps with that. If it wasn’t cost-effective to do it as well, I would say it probably shouldn’t be our main focus. But it will be cost-effective. In fact, we’ll save money industry-wide, which we need to do. Digital cinema can help us put on a better show for people.”