Amid Digital Doubts, a Better Projector


As the film world anticipates a seemingly inevitable shift to digital projection in movie theaters, a small Los Angeles company is quietly developing a new system that produces a clearer, brighter picture employing standard 35-millimeter film stock.

Hollywood film editor Dean Goodhill started out just trying to eliminate film-stock waste and ended up founding MaxiVision Cinema Technology Inc., which uses a new film process and expects to be in six test screens within 15 months.

MaxiVision uses old technology in a high-tech way. In a nutshell, it places a larger image on each frame of standard 35-millimeter film, then runs it twice as fast, through both the camera and the projector, using conventional commercial processes.


The result is impressing some industry veterans.

“What I saw was unbelievably terrific clarity from film,” said Mitch Goldman, former New Line Cinema marketing president and now a consultant to talent manager Michael Ovitz.

Goodhill says, “I was a still photographer and a laboratory technician, assistant cameraman and cameraman and I looked at all the things that were wrong and could be done better in the movies, and came up with the genesis of this idea.”

Goodhill, best known for editing work on the 1993 Warner Bros. feature “The Fugitive,” which earned him part of an Oscar nomination, sought out partners in the fields of precision machinery and robotics to cobble together the new system, which combines current commercial applications with high technology. Goodhill and his group obtained three patents--a fourth is pending--and recently began showing the new product in a small projection room in San Luis Obispo.

MaxiVision would appear to face a tough task in derailing the advent of electronic cinema, which essentially involves putting a motion picture on a digital signal that is projected onto a theater-size screen.

Technically speaking, digital movies have reached a state that most movie audiences consider acceptable, most observers agree. But electronic cinema faces a host of knotty issues involving conversion costs, signal delivery and security against piracy.

“Digital is around the corner,” said Wayne Anderson, president and chief executive of RC Theaters Management Corp. of Reisterstown, Md., and chairman of the technical committee for the North Hollywood-based National Assn. of Theater Owners. “It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, it’s a question of when.”


Yet Goodhill believes his company has a better method that can be adopted much more easily and at a lower cost than electronic cinema.

The key for Goodhill was creating a projector that can run MaxiVision as well as standard motion pictures. Goodhill brought in a partner, Ty Safreno, president-CEO of Trust Automation Inc. of San Luis Obispo, which specializes in precision machine fabrication and high-speed industrial robotics. They worked for nearly two years to build the projector that, Goodhill insists, makes the system commercially viable.

To prove their point, the inventors have been exhibiting a 22-second test snippet that simply shows actor Peter Billingsley taking a stroll outside the Woodland Hills office of Panavision Inc., which makes cinema cameras.

But the clip, as brief as it is, has won enthusiastic reviews from movie critics Todd McCarthy of Daily Variety and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times--as well as a number of other key movie industry figures who remain skeptical about the quality of electronic cinema.

Ebert argues that audiences react differently to film and video. Film’s imperceptible flickering elicits an emotional effect, he believes, while video’s steady image has an hypnotic effect.

“If video isn’t film, and that makes a difference in the subtle way viewers react, the industry may destroy the reason people go out to the movies,” Ebert said after viewing the clip, which Goodhill has also been showing to investors in hopes of raising $30 million to get the company up and running.

Attorney and novelist Philip Friedman, a MaxiVision principal, said that the company expects to have projectors in about six test markets by fall of 2000.

The firm’s revenue would come from licensing fees paid by producers in models similar to payments for using one of the digital sound systems in commercial use, Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, Digital Theater Systems and Dolby Digital.

Projector installation would cost about $9,100 per screen, Friedman estimated.

By comparison, said Anderson, the theater owners association’s technical committee chairman, current projection systems costs from $20,000 to $50,000. The most recent estimates for conversion to digital projection start at a minimum of $85,000, he added.

One of the key promises of electronic cinema is that--unlike film, which scratches or fades--the digitally created image remains pristine no matter how long it is shown.

But Goodhill said his projection system is designed to keep the film clean and fresh-looking and to hold the image steady, both of which are considered key advantages of electronic exhibition.

But MaxiVision, he said, offers much greater definition and depth.

“This opens up completely new creative horizons. All of a sudden, all kinds of things--actors performances--will come through in fidelity that they’ve never seen before,” he said. “It opens up . . . possibilities that movies will be made in ways that it will have an effect on audiences that we’ve never before seen, and no one can really know what that will mean at the box office.”