L.A. Film Fans Preview New Digital Projection


Starting today, the Force will be with digital cinema for the next four weeks as audiences in Los Angeles get their first glimpse of moviegoing of the future.

Not only is the high-tech-heavy “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” on digital display, but Miramax has quietly sneaked into the spotlight with the simultaneous digital premiere of its latest film, “An Ideal Husband.”

Through July 15, “The Phantom Menace” will be shown digitally on one screen at AMC’s Burbank 14 theater and on another at Pacific’s Winnetka theater. “An Ideal Husband” will be projected digitally at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theater, with concurrent demonstrations in New York and New Jersey.

The experiment marks the first commercial digital presentation of a full-length feature film. It also heralds a competition among companies with rival technologies and business models.

Vying for technological supremacy are Texas Instruments, which has produced a prototype digital projector that relies on a chip with more than a million tiny mirrors, and a unit offered by Hughes-JVC using liquid crystal light valve technology.


The Texas Instruments projector will be installed at AMC’s Burbank 14 theater, while the Hughes-JVC projector will be inaugurated at Pacific’s Winnetka theater and Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theater. Hughes-JVC is in partnership with Qualcomm Inc. in Cinecomm Digital Cinema, which also is promoting satellite transmission to deliver digital cinema to theaters.

Transmission is among several key issues yet to be resolved by the film industry in this technological changeover. The others involve cost, standardization, security and control. For the time being, “The Phantom Menace” will be transmitted by computer (with 18 massive hard drives) at each of the four theaters, while the Oscar Wilde-inspired “An Ideal Husband” will be transmitted by high-definition digital tape.

Skeptics may not be convinced that such a changeover will work until they witness the complete transmission system from soup to nuts, including full compression and encryption of the digital stream.

While digital projection has come a long way, most industry observers believe it is not yet on a par with film. With “Phantom Menace,” that could change. “In terms of color reproduction, detail, brightness and focus, it looks more like the way we shot it than film,” said “Phantom Menace” producer Rick McCallum. “You have to understand what a frustrating process it is as a filmmaker to see the awful presentation of your film in most theaters.”

Lucasfilm, which produced “Phantom Menace,” has had a long commitment to digital movie making, and the company proposes to shoot “Star Wars: Episode II” with a high-definition digital camera now being jointly developed by Panavision and Sony.

“It will obviously get better, but we want to show that there is no reason to hold back,” Lucasfilm President Gordon Radley said. “We want to complete the digital chain. How to pay for it needs to be spelled out, but the financing will be there. It is to everyone’s advantage, from the filmmaker to the moviegoer, right down the chain.”

Analysts expect the transition to digital projection to begin over the next five years or so.

The advantages are clear for filmmakers, who strive for total control of the visual image and want to see improved theatrical presentation, and for studios, which would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year on prints and lab costs.

The advantages are less clear for theater owners, who may be asked to bear most of the financial burden. Digital projectors are likely to cost from $100,000 to $150,000.

Yet new technology would give exhibitors greater flexibility in managing screens and accommodating hot films, as well as the ability to screen live events.

“We’re impressed with the quality of what we’ve seen thus far and like the idea that a film will look just as good in the 10th week,” said Dick Walsh, senior vice president of AMC’s Western division.