The Digital Revolution

It’s been six years since director George Lucas whetted the
public’s appetite for digital cinema with the release of Star
Wars: Episode I
, yet America’s major studios and movie theater
chains have yet to embrace the technology.

Most Hollywood movers and shakers concede that, just as the
Internet has changed the shape of the music industry, a digital
shift in film exhibition and distribution is inevitable. However,
just as the corporate music labels have been slow to embrace
progress, those with a financial stake in the movie business are
likely to continue wringing their hands over specific legal and
technical standards, the cost of conversion, and, most importantly,
how to divide the box office grosses.

Studios and distributors spend hundreds of millions of dollars a
year creating film reels and circulating them to theaters around
the world. In the digital realm, movies can be delivered
electronically using satellites or centralized servers at a
fraction of the operating expense. Once a way to pay for the costly
upgrades is settled on, theater owners will be able to display
these hi-fi movies using large hard drives and digital projectors;
it remains to be seen whether or not they would continue to show
both digital and analog films, or for how long.

Ironically, when it comes to exhibition, the world’s dominant
exporter of movie magic is behind the global curve. In March, a
consortium of investors announced a deal to digitally retool 500
screens in Ireland, where movies will be streaming via satellite
within a year; other European countries are in the process of doing
the same. There are already hundreds of digital venues across Asia,
specifically in China, Singapore, and India.

In the United States, exhibitors are finally getting a prod from
high-profile tech mogul and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who
also co-owns the 270-screen Landmark Theatres group, known
especially for screening foreign and art house films. Determined to
create America’s first all-digital theater chain, he’s begun the
process of upgrading all Landmark screens at his own expense. He
also plans to pipe in live concerts and sporting events via
satellite. In a recent profile published in Wired
(April 2005), Cuban made clear that he won’t be held back by his
old-school Hollywood counterparts, who often claim to lack digital
enthusiasm for fear of piracy. Cuban believes the leap toward
digital distribution won’t leave studios much more vulnerable to
illegal duplication than they already are. Annalee Newitz, policy
analyst for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees.
‘First of all, any digital films are going to have watermarks that
would make it very easy to trace any copies back to the theater
that showed them,’ she says. ‘Second, you’d have to have incredibly
expensive, elaborate equipment to convert a theater-quality digital
film into something small enough to distribute on a file-sharing
network.’

Besides, Newitz adds, most piracy takes place at the movie
studios, where employees with access to prerelease versions of a
film will use everything from DVD burners to ‘the old
Web-cam-in-the-theater trick’ to create copies.

Of course, most independent filmmakers are less troubled by
piracy issues than by the barriers to getting their work
distributed in the first place. Digital systems could help usher
more indie films into the marketplace because, in theory, the cost
and logistics of exhibition would be lower.

‘It’s not a crisis of production anymore,’ says Paradigm
Consulting head Peter Broderick, who advises filmmakers and
companies on new distribution strategies. ‘With digital tools, if
you’re determined to make a movie, nothing can stop you. But
getting it into the world has been very difficult. . . . [With
digital exhibition] you could have a film screened for one night,
or you could have a film screened every Sunday morning at 10:00
a.m. As long as you have a niche audience that’s going to come out
to that movie, you’re not locked into these week-by-week bookings
anymore.’

Digital theater conversion also stands to shake up the
traditional relationships between filmmakers and studios. In the
analog world, artists routinely have to sit back and watch while
studio suits and distributors make virtually all of the commercial
decisions about their work. Looking ahead, a digital distribution
model could give filmmakers more promotional control — and a much
larger share of profits — by cutting out the intermediaries.
According to Broderick, this type of (r)evolution is already
occurring on the Internet, where a filmmaker can promote and sell
thousands of copies of his or her work directly to video fans
around the globe, so long as they have credit cards and e-mail
addresses.

Which means that while the film industry strains to graduate
from frames to pixels, quibbling over technical standards and who
will pay for what, technology continues to advance in that bastion
of popcorn-gobbling bliss: the home theater. ‘Some of the digital
projectors that people can have in their homes cost as little as
$3,000,’ Broderick says. ‘We could have high-quality digital
projection in living rooms before we have it in movie theaters,
which seems kind of bizarre.’

James Diers is a freelance writer who lives in Los
Angeles.

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