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DIGITAL REVOLUTION?

Theater owners prepare for major biz upheaval

LONDON This year's Cinema Expo marks the baby steps of the electronic cinema era. The digital infant is poised to become a voracious toddler on the theater scene--and will demand a financial investment surpassing even diapers for quintuplets.

For exhibitors worldwide, it's a question of when, not whether, to switch from film to digital delivery, but it's still early to predict when the baby will hit maturity. Euro exhibs will ponder the question at a digital cinema demonstration and panel discussion on Cinema Expo's opening day, June 21.

More than 2,000 participants are expected for the four-day event at Amsterdam's RAI Intl. Exhibition & Congress Centre.

"Star Wars--Episode I: The Phantom Menace" screenings last week in Los Angeles and New York marked the dawn of a new era--one that is still two to 25 years away, depending on who's asked.

Following front-runners

The monthlong trial runs are serving as showcases for the technology of the industry's two front-runners, CineComm Digital Cinema (working in tandem with Hughes-JVC Technology and Qualcomm) and Dallas-based Texas Instruments (TI).

For Bob England, senior VP and manager of TI's Digital Imaging division, Lucasfilm's exhib experiment provides evidence that "(Digital Light Processing) cinema technology delivers an onscreen image which rivals and perhaps even surpasses film."

But Euro techies have yet to be convinced.

"It's very close, but one of the major failings is that the picture is too clinically clean," says UIP technical director of international operations Paul Lawrence.

While for Lawrence's counterpart at Cinemaxx in Germany, Oliver Pasch, there are still hurdles to be overcome in color temperature.

Different strokes

"Maybe my eyes are accustomed to 35mm ... but (in a trailer comparison) some people looked like pigs," says Pasch, referring to Leonardo DiCaprio's flesh tones in "Titanic."

He also expresses concern about the present ability of digital images to translate from a standard of 472 feet up to the chain's 866- to 944-foot-wide flagship theaters.

But the rollout of electronic cinema in exhib terms will not be determined by aesthetic considerations, according to Alan McCain, ABC Cinema's technical director. McCain points out that even today, you could project an HDTV image and 90% of the audience would accept it.

"The key issues are who will pay for (the equipment) and who will benefit the most from its introduction," sums up Joost Bert, joint CEO of plex pioneer Kinepolis.

From the exhib viewpoint, the gains--greater flexibility in scheduling features, smaller projection booths (which no longer must be situated at the back of the auditorium), and a possible reduction in staff--are outweighed by the financial investment in equipment required, three to four times more expensive than conventional 35mm projectors.

Studios and/or distributors, meanwhile, stand to make significant cost savings (up to 95%) on the expense of producing release prints and associated shipping costs--as films will be delivered to cinemas via satellite, broadband or fiber optics--or a combination of the three.

A further possibility, and the preference of European exhibs like AMC Europe's president, Bruno Frydman, is the physical delivery of tapes or discs on which the telecined data stream is stored, although this option would negate some of the savings and flexibility that electronic cinema would afford.

During the recent Cannes Film Festival, reps from Cinecomm and Real Image Digital discussed the various approaches, with Cinecomm endorsing satellite delivery. Real Image, a consortium of industry experts and researchers, is developing distribution and compression technology for the digital era, but the group does not endorse a particular delivery method.

Given that a mainstream release worldwide can generate up to 8,000 new prints and each print with shipping can cost up to $3,000, the potential savings would run into the millions, which is why Jan Bernhardsson, president and CEO of Sweden's major plexer SFBU, predicts distribs will drive the market.

Revolution

But for the pot of gold at the end of the electronic rainbow to materialize, a revolution has to take place.

"I would like to see the gains from not using traditional prints split 50-50 between exhibitors and the distribution sector, and that's going to be one very tough discussion," says Bert, expressing a widely held sentiment among cinema chains.

THX Professional Division director Kurt Schwenk, a panelist at the forthcoming Cinema Expo seminar on electronic cinema, points to the resolution of this issue as the key factor in the roll-out of electronic cinema, while its timing a specification for digital projectors is in place--will depend on the need to certify electronic masters and to develop standards for digital transmission schedules.

In the meantime, European exhibs, acknowledging the inevitability of electronic cinema, are testing the technology for themselves and laying the groundwork for the future. SFBU has a digital projection trial lined up in December, and UIP is in the market for a couple of machines when prices drop.

Cinemaxx is increasing the size of its projection-booth windows in its new multiplexes (so that the chain can run 35mm alongside a digital projector during the changeover), while Kinepolis has speeded up the depreciation of its tech assets.

"A pioneer is a man with his nose in front and an arrow in his back, and although digital is the future, I don't think there will be any real problems in retrofitting," Bernhardsson concludes.
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Title Annotation:digital motion pictures
Author:AVIS, TIM
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 21, 1999
Words:883
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