Experts say the dawn of digital cinema is still some years away

With all the talk of new digital technology in entertainment — DVD, HDTV, the Net — movie fans might think digital movies will be in
local theaters any day, but that won’t happen for years, industry experts said on Monday. The state of digital cinema took much of the spotlight here on the first day of the huge ShoWest trade show where theater owners meet each year to consider the health of
their industry, and the health this year is anemic at best. Despite a $33 billion 1999 at box offices worldwide, theater operators are overburdened with debt after recent years of building expensive mega-plexes. Many hope new digital films with crisp pictures and
clear sound will enhance moviegoing and draw more people into theaters, but others aren’t so sure.

“The attitude of exhibitors is very mixed. Some members are excited and ready to role, but some are very anxious and very nervous about the cost,” said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. While many theater owners trumpeted their public view that digital cinema exists today, other insiders, privately, said a mass roll-out of the equipment needed for a state-of-the-art digital cinema may take over five years.

Thomas MacCalla, chief operating officer at the University of Southern California’s Entertainment Technology Center, offered a 3 to 5 year timeline for when the industry can reach decisions on technological standards for digital films. Standards involve picture resolution, data compression, bandwidth needed for distribution, among others. But all the experts agreed the bigger issue on the timing of a roll-out boils down to a dollars-and-cents question for theater owners: What is the cost of putting projectors in theaters vs. the payback in
increased ticket revenues?

Right now, a digital projection system costs more than $100,000 for one theater, according to Chuck Collins, National Market Development Manager for Digital Projection Systems, one of five companies demonstrating digital systems at ShoWest. With about 37,000 movie screens in the U.S. alone, the cost rises into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Fithian said theater operators and studio distributors are grappling with the question of who should pay. He said the studios look to shave some $800 million off the cost of making additional film prints and shipping them, and because they stand to benefit the most, they should pay. But theater owners stand to benefit, too, as a wave of digital films in theaters could help boost ticket prices as may people pay more money to see a better quality film.

New digital films do benefit consumers in a couple of ways other than just sharper pictures and riveting sound. Digital movies are less susceptible to degradation, so a moviegoer heading to see a film that’s been in theaters for weeks will still see it as if it were opening night. Also smaller and rural theaters will be able to show a movie the same day as suburban mega-plexes because the films will be uploaded and downloaded via satellite, making their distribution faster and more widespread than current methods of shipping film reels from location to location. But regardless of the benefits it may offer and all the hype surrounding digital cinema, most experts agree that the transition for movie fans is one that will take a long time.

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