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Cinema halls going digital!

April 22, 2005 17:22 IST

Filmmaker George Lucas is a Hollywood visionary. He was the first to make use of computers in film-making and special effects in "Star Wars" and was the first to shoot motion pictures digitally with the next generation of "Star War" films.

So the world of cinema listens very carefully when George Lucas speaks. At the ShoWest Convention in Las Vegas in early March, an annual gathering for theatre owners and movie studios, George Lucas came out pushing hard for the movie industry to make the transition from the traditional chemical-based celluloid to digital cinema.

The arrival of digital cinema offers a paradigm shift for cinema theatre owners worldwide. It also has the potential to revolutionise the exhibition and distribution businesses more than any innovation in years.

A digital cinema theatre can download a movie to a computer server over a satellite link. The new 4K digital projectors (4096 x 2160 pixel resolutions) costing  $ 60,000 each can display images at more than four times the resolution of current high-definition displays.

The content is protected with multiple levels of encryption, and each projector has its own encryption key. On a technical level, the quality of the film going experience is as good as 35mm today.

The movies look and sound better. Digital cinema also reduces the cost of distribution, eliminating the need for making costly prints and the need to rent, deliver, collect and store prints.

It is also much easier to assign extra screenings to a hit and drop screenings of a flop. All interested parties seem to agree that digital projection results not only in higher-quality images and sound but will also save on cost since studios could distribute films via satellite.

But despite the obvious attraction of digital cinema, there are fewer than 250 digital screens worldwide and only about 90 digital systems in the US and Canada. This is about to change dramatically.

Warner Bros, Sony and Disney are in advanced talks over a business plan to roll out 1,500 digital installations in US movie theatres. Regal Entertainment group, a network of 6,300 screens and 560 theatres, has already made an investment of $75 million in digital distribution capabilities in about 90 per cent of its facilities.

Landmark Theatres will begin its digital cinema rollout this summer with six projectors, and plans to fully enable all of its 59 theatres for digital projection.

For digital cinema to take off worldwide, a global, industry standard, interoperable distribution system that facilitates the transmission of digital files is necessary.

In early March a new distribution system for the delivery of digital-cinema content across continents was tested between Los Angeles and Singapore.

The system, called Cross-Continent Digital Content Transmission, provided seamless end-to-end digital delivery, from initial processing in the US to the final projection on a movie screen in Singapore.

In Europe, Deutsche Telekom's T-Systems is introducing an end-to-end solution to connect European theatres with Hollywood studios in Los Angeles for digital distribution.

The arrival of digital cinema, it seems, is also going to change the revenue model for the movie industry. This year the ShoWest conference revealed that 28 per cent of Americans go to the movies at least once a month and 1.54 billion tickets  (the average cost of a movie ticket was $6.21) were sold in 2004.

The domestic grosses have exceeded  $9 billion three years in a row and 657 new movie screens were added to take the number of theatres to 36,652 in the US. After converting to digital, the saving in supplying movie prints to theatres in US would be approximately $750 million a year.

According to George Lucas, with home theatre technology constantly evolving and becoming more sophisticated, cinema theatres run the risk of being left behind if they don't offer digital cinema. "We're rooting for the theatres," Lucas said. "We want the theatres to win."

Lall is the president and CEO of LALL Entertainment, a company based in Los Angeles and New Delhi

Bhuvan Lall