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Archive for Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Taking the film out of the movies

March 22, 2005

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For Arnold Gorlick, there's something special about the ritual of loading film into a projector and showing it for audiences at the movie theater he owns in Madison, Conn.

"There's something about the lore of having rolls of film -- the canisters and sprockets and emulsion," he said as patrons left a recent showing of "Hotel Rwanda." "There's a psychological comfort to it. But not to the people born into the new technology."

For about 100 years, we've been watching movies pretty much the same way -- celluloid film projected onto the big screen. But most agree, whether they like it or not, that digital technology will change that.

Instead of handling, splicing, reeling and unreeling rolls of 35 mm film in large canisters, theater workers would prepare the evening's screenings with a few keystrokes on a computer. The movies would be compressed into computer files and would either be sent to theaters on encoded DVDs or beamed from a central computer via satellite or fiber-optic cables.

The timing of this breakthrough is not a question of capability -- the technology is already there. The holdup is a matter of who's going to pay for it. To convert a theater to show digital movies would cost from $85,000 to $150,000 per screen.

Studios say theaters will benefit from the conversion because they'll be able to give customers a better moviegoing experience. While traditional film degrades each time it's viewed, digital movies retain their quality for infinite showings.

Theater owners concede that not having to worry about film deterioration is a nice feature. But the quality of digital movies isn't so spectacular, they say, that it would justify the costs of the new equipment.

"When I first saw a digital movie, I expected it to look better than film," Gorlick said. "It doesn't."

A traditional film projector costs about $35,000 and can last from 35 to 50 years with proper care. How long digital projectors will last might depend on the time it takes for technology to make it obsolete.

Arnold Gorlick, owner of the Madison Art Cinema, threads 35 mm
movie film into one of the theater's two massive 1 ton projectors
in preparation for showing a matinee of "The Chorus."

Arnold Gorlick, owner of the Madison Art Cinema, threads 35 mm movie film into one of the theater's two massive 1 ton projectors in preparation for showing a matinee of "The Chorus."

Studios, on the other hand, stand to save bundles by not having to pay the costs of making hundreds or thousands of prints and shipping them to individual theaters. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, says studios pay $1,500 per print for distribution. By beaming them to theaters, the cost drops to about $100 per copy.

Gorlick estimates that all theaters will be converted to digital capability within seven years. Fithian won't venture a guess but agrees that the technology will barrel ahead despite the reluctance of theater owners and some film purists.

Digital movies have improved significantly in just the past few years. George Lucas, digital's most vocal champion, has shot the last two episodes of the "Star Wars" series in digital and is urging the industry to catch up with him. But there are holdouts, including Steven Spielberg, who say film has a certain quality that digital can't match.

And digital technology promises more than just visual clarity, said Bud Mayo, CEO of Access Integrated Technologies Inc., a company that makes equipment and software for the delivery and storage of digital movies.

Mayo said movies could open on one night all over the world, reducing the market for bootleg films. Several versions of the same movie could be available to theater owners. A theater could show a movie one day and the same one with an alternate ending the next day.

Or if a theater is in a city with a large ethnic community, the owner could display subtitles for that audience or display captions for the hearing-impaired. And because distribution would cost so much less, small independent films would have a better chance of finding wide audiences.

Mayo said the studios appear to be ready to pay a large portion of the theaters' conversion costs. At this point, he said, they're just deciding how much and the details of the financing. He expects a plan to be in place by the end of the year.

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