24 Mar Digital cinema is changing the industry, just not rapidly
The debut of the original Star Wars movie in 1977 spawned a cultural phenomenon that continues to this day and which will be fed by the August release of yet another in the series of galactic adventure films.
The original movie was groundbreaking in many aspects, including its use of Dolby’s four-channel surround sound. So stunning was the sound that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created an award for sound effects director Ben Burtt.
But the dramatic improvement in movie sound did not spark a revolution. It was an evolution. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that manufacturers stopped making equipment for single-channel movie sound.
Expect a similar situation for digital cinema, which the movie industry has engaged as the next great technology. Despite the successful launch of digital cinema movies, including some in 3D, the transition away from film will be long-term, said Michael Karagosian, a digital cinema consultant to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).
“It took 20 years for mono sound to go away,” he said. “The widespread switch to digital cinema might not take that long, but it could be 10 years or more.”
NATO in early March released an updated version of its Digital Cinema System Requirements document, the first revision of the guidelines intended for standards committees, product manufacturers and service providers in the digital cinema supply chain.
“The document describes new areas where additional standards work is needed,” Karagosian said. “Completion and implementation of in-theater standards are important next steps in the development of digital cinema, and NATO will continue to actively pursue these goals.”
NATO’s team working to create standards for the new technology includes Jane Durment, chief information officer of Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp., which owns or manages about 500 screens in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Ohio. Marcus has been showing digital movies and finding that audiences notice and appreciate the quality, said Carlo Petrick, director of communications for Marcus Theaters.
Full adoption of digital is not just a matter of standards creation and implementation, according to Karagosian.
Technology Here; ROI Isn’t
“It’s easy to put a digital image on a screen today; the technology is there,” Karagosian said. “But to do that in a manner that is productive for a business – we’re not fully there yet. The return on investment for digital cinema really is not there yet. On a gross level, digital cinema as it exists today would not generate new revenue for an exhibitor.”
NATO’s Technology Committee has estimated that annual maintenance costs for digital cinema would be $5,000 to $10,000 per theater, compared to $1,000 to $2,000 in annual costs for film projector maintenance.
The organization has called for studios to help pay costs related to the purchase and installation of digital cinema equipment as part of the initial roll-out, operation and maintenance “to the extent that those costs exceed ordinary operation, maintenance and upgrade costs of 35mm film projectors.”
Picture Changes with 3D
The financial situation changes with digital 3D, Karagosian added, calling the new 3D technology “a game changer.”
“Audience reaction has been extraordinarily positive,” Petrick said of the 3D showings at Marcus’s Ridge Cinemas in New Berlin and Point UltraScreen Cinema in Madison, where showings included Nightmare Before Christmas, Beowulf, Hannah Montana/Molly Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds, and U2-3D.
Up to now, the best setting for a 3D movie was an IMAX theater, Karagosian said. Digital has changed that, taking 3D well beyond the marginal experiences of older technology.
“Studios can do things they couldn’t do 10 years ago, with a quality level not possible before,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for every movie, but when it is, audiences like the 3D experience in digital.”
Karagosian expects that 2009 will bring a significant increase in digital 3D releases, partly in response to greater attendance levels at theaters that have shown digital 3D movies.
“It’s an entirely different technology than film 3D,” Petrick said. And that also applies to the polarized glasses that movie viewers use.
The biggest difference is the amount of light reaching the screen from the digital projector, but viewers might also notice a steadier picture. The digital 3D technology also greatly reduces or eliminates eyestrain common with film 3D, Petrick added.
2009 Could Be Transition Year
Numerous manufacturers are providing equipment for digital cinema, compared with the two basic film projector technologies now in use. Once more theaters invest in digital cinema, dominant manufacturers will emerge, Karagosian said.
Industry leaders expect that investment to start building in 2009, Karagosian said. “There is a lot of expectation that more mainstream cinemas will start buying digital equipment next year,” he said.
One of the main issues yet to be totally resolved is security of projection rights. Under the existing set-up, each showing of a digital movie requires a unique “key” – a process that has not been entirely smooth so far, Karagosian said. “There are things we need to do to make that a smooth process, and that will come,” he said.
Marcus has been testing various digital cinema projectors at locations in addition to New Berlin and Madison as part of its process of vetting equipment, Petrick said. Based on the limited digital showings to date, “the digital image is an improvement over the film experience, particularly in terms of brightness and steadiness,” he said.
But crisper is not always better where art is concerned. “Each media has its different qualities,” Petrick observed. “Film can be a little more warm,” he said, with that “warmth” lending itself to a film’s artistic qualities. “A digital movie might not give you that same feel.”
It’s Still About Art, Entertainment
Karagosian cautions that while the technology is improving, the motion picture industry is still about entertainment, and that without good story lines, the technology would not matter. “Ultimately, we don’t go to the movies because of technology,” he said. “We go because we want to be entertained by a great story. The content side really drives this business.”
Think of black-and-white movie classics such as Casablanca. The movie relied on the technology of its time, but it’s a classic because of the story line, the acting and the directing – factors that rise above technology.