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Digital Projection: Cost Vs. Clarity

There’s something positively valiant about the tenacity with which the major movie studios have pursued digital projection as a solution to one of their main expenses, making film prints and shipping them to theaters around the world.

For at least seven years now, we’ve been told that digital cinema is just a couple of years from taking the world by storm in a win-win for everybody. The studios are to get a break from the $1 billion they spend annually on physical prints by replacing them with digital bit streams distributed by satellite; moviegoers will view jiggle-free images as pristine on the hundredth showing as on the first; and theaters will be overwhelmed by throngs abandoning their DVD-equipped cocoons to share a fresh entertainment experience with their fellow human beings.

The latest step in the studios’ campaign against film came last week with the release of a specification for the new technology from Digital Cinema Initiatives, a consortium of the seven major Hollywood studios. As my colleagues Claudia Eller and Kim Christensen reported, the document addresses several issues that have long kept theater owners from joining the studios on the digital bandwagon.

It commits Hollywood to a standardized digital format, so exhibitors won’t have to install a given brand of equipment to show a given studio’s movies or a specific release. The studios also agree to leave the data produced by digital projectors under the theater owners’ control. The owners, understandably, don’t wish to give studios easy access to data showing, say, which of a multiplex’s screens a film played on and at what time, because that might allow the studios to interfere with decisions that include when to kick a bombing picture out of a big auditorium and move it to a smaller hall.

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The exhibitors say one important development embodied in the new document is that the studios solicited their views and actually accepted some points. But it’s still premature to suggest, as the studios did in unveiling the specification, that the battle is all but over. While John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, called it “a very substantial advance,” it still leaves open the key question of who will pay for a transition to digital projectors that could cost about $100,000 per screen. (There are about 35,000 movie screens in the U.S., of which only about 100 are equipped with prototype digital projectors.)

Insiders say the studios are close to offering to pay for installations for at least 10,000 screens. But they still want the exhibitors to pay for upgrades and maintenance, which the theater owners regard as a poisoned chalice. Conventional projectors haven’t fundamentally changed in nearly a century; theaters needing replacements for worn or broken parts can still scavenge them from decades-old models. Digital projection technology is much flakier, however, and is sure to involve major technical upgrades every few years.

This “who pays” argument has always been a sign that digital projection, despite its many fine features, is simply not the jaw-dropping improvement over conventional projection that (for example) talkies were in the Roaring ‘20s. If digital cinema were an incontrovertible crowd-pleaser, both sides would be falling all over themselves to get it rolled out rather than dickering over the price.

The marketing push for digital projection even seems to have waned recently. This weekend’s movie advertisements in The Times seemed to offer only three listings specifying digital projection as a come-on. Two were for “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” which is pretty much a demo reel for digital moviemaking; the other was for the big-budget stinker “The Island,” which needs all the marketing help it can get.

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Digital’s promoters say that the technology has now been refined to the point where its images are distinctly better than film, especially when judged against prints degraded by repeated showings, and even in comparison with high-definition home theater, the latest consumer touchstone. Fithian says he’s satisfied that the quality is now “better than film and better than home.”

But theater owners may well regard the infinite improvability of digital cinema as a drawback, not a selling point. As computer owners know, with digital technology something better always lurks over the horizon. Digital cinema experts are already talking about a new format known as “4K,” which packs four times as much visual information onto the movie screen as conventional, or “2K,” digital projection.

According to those who have seen it, 4K is a viewing experience that actually does knock your socks off with its detail, clarity and immediacy. “We were awed,” Michael Karagosian, a digital cinema consultant who advises the theater industry, told me last week, referring to a laboratory demonstration he witnessed. “It was more impressive than anyone thought it would be.”

Deployment of 4K, however, is many years distant. It still faces numerous technical challenges, and commercial-grade projection equipment hasn’t been developed yet. But will theater owners buy into 2K if they think it’s merely a transitional technology to something really super?

There’s still plenty of doubt among exhibitors that digital projection in its current state is good enough to expand the box office, or to counteract all the phenomena that are thought to contribute to the steady decline in attendance: crummy features, early DVD releases, hassles with traffic and parking, and what Fithian refers to as “bad apples in the audience” -- talkers, cellphone users, etc., etc. No doubt many potential customers are thinking, “Let them invent a digital way of zapping those jerks, and then maybe I’ll come out to the movies again.”

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Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.


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