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The End of Film

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The advent of digital cinema


The prophets are very vocal as they try to convince us digital's the biggest revolution in movies since sound or colour. Is it the future, or just the rantings of a few self-interested producers and technology literati?

The revolution's certainly here for filmmakers. Just ask Richard Linklater (Tape), Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) and George Lucas (Star Wars) – Linklater and Boyle couldn't even have made their projects without the flexibility of digital.

But when it comes to the massive (and massively expensive) task of getting a movie around the world and onto movie screens, a much bigger (and seemingly insurmountable) quantum shift is needed.

Hard as it is to believe, the movie business is doing it tough, and it's getting tougher. From studios down the supply chain to cinemas, profits are evaporating and there's little elbow room for the kind of investment digital cinema needs.

In fact the movie business – according to Lucasfilm's Rick McCallum, currently up to his neck in Jedi knights and clone stormtroopers – is about to implode. And digital cinema isn't just the fledgling, futuristic movie technology everybody's talking about, it's going to save the industry as it faces the onslaught of rising costs and rampant piracy.

"There's so few movies that make any money off box office," McCallum says, "if it wasn't for DVD the whole thing would go bankrupt. It's a matter of public record that film studios are struggling. Representing 3-5 percent of their parent companies' income, they're not making big bucks at all. They need to cut their costs dramatically, and one of the biggest areas you can cut costs in is distribution."

And while going digital is the only way McCallum thinks that'll happen, he's also passionate about the big plus for the audience and filmmaker – the chance to see the movie exactly how the director and cinematographer intended.

"Digital's also got to do with control of your movie," he thinks. "We spend millions of dollars mixing a movie – everybody does. And nothing's worse than going to a multiplex and the stereo sound is out, there's a huge colour shift between reels, scratches or weave and it's a lousy presentation."

The Big Stall

If the industry really is teetering on the economic brink, what's the holdup? Somebody's going to save trillions on digital distribution and exhibition of movies, so why hasn't it become as ubiquitous as DVD (which is fast becoming a dangerous competitor to cinema).

Firstly, you can't make money without spending it. A digital projector costs $100,000-$200,000, and exhibitors are too busy paying their expensive shopping mall rents to buy a replacement system when the one they have works fine. In any case, so few movies come digitally, and studios in turn won't produce movies digitally until exhibitors have the means to show them.

Texas Instruments is active in the area of exhibition models for digital cinema, and to Doug Darrow – TI's Business Manager, Digital Light Projector Cinema Products – it's about more than buying a projector. Exhibitors need a solution. "You have to go to the top and see where the cost saving is," Darrow explains, "That needs to help finance the transition. The saving is with the studio or distributor that doesn't make film prints anymore so they have to finance or subsidise the deployment of digital at some level."

After cost, the biggest hurdle is getting everyone to agree. If everyone leaps onto a separate format or delivery system bandwagon, we might end up with different 'families' of studio/distributor/exhibitor supply chains that can only deal with their own content, and nobody's keen for the industry to descend into that sort of chaos.

"There's an enormous concern over compatible standards," says Dominic Case, Group Technology and Services Manager of Atlab – who knows something about standardising movies for exhibitors. "Because of the complexity of the issue it's taking a long time for the various organisations to reach agreements, and not just in projection but encoding, encryption, different colour standards, etc."

And while piracy is a big issue, the advent of digital distribution and exhibition will only change that to an extent – piracy rarely occurs during the distribution stage. In fact, a statement by Buena Vista Australia claims 'digital cinema is more easily controlled in post-production, distribution and exhibition than traditional film'.

The New Distributor

According to Rick McCallum, 'there has to be a breakthrough'. When it comes, how will it change that most expensive part of bringing movies to an audience – distribution?

As Columbia Tristar's Managing Director, Ross Entwistle is only too aware of the money that goes into moving films (and the resulting pressure distributors exert on cinema owners). Next time there's eight screenings of the latest Hollywood blockbuster a day and only one of the latest quirky Australian comedy, that's the economy of film prints in action.

"Distributing pictures is to an extent driven by the cost of providing celluloid." Entwistle says, "We impose conditions on theatres because it costs $2500 to strike a print. When that cost doesn't exist we can be a lot more flexible about the way a film is exhibited."

The sums behind the recent crop of mass-release blockbusters are sobering. McCallum cites Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones as an example, when 20th Century Fox created 13,000 prints for consecutive release in over 50 countries. At over $2000 per print, it's nearly $30m just to make them, to say nothing of collecting and destroying film at the end of its run.

It's not so bad if you're releasing a Titanic or The Matrix: Reloaded that'll return up to $1bn, but the returns on most films make it easy to understand McCallum's belief that digital will rescue a large portion of the moviemaking industry.

Going For Broke

But why can't digital come fast enough for distributors? Don't they have a lot to fear from it? Isn't a canister of film their only real asset – to market and sell to the moviegoing public?

When Kevin Smith directs Harry Potter and Hermoine's Messy Divorce in 2035, won't Warner Bros simply put an.mpg file of it on a file server in the US and alert 150,000 cinemas around the world that it's ready to download and stream through their digital projectors?

As the head of Buena Vista International, Alan Finney sounds almost offended at the suggestion the distributor sector will be redundant. "Sending prints to cinemas is 1% of what distributors do," he says, "We create awareness and desire to see the film, so digital won't alter the job at all. If that's the case we'd have a lot more distributors and you know what we'd call them? Courier services."

Finney has a level of certainty on his company's continued relevancy to the supply chain that Matthew Alexander of JVC further articulates. In a joint venture with Kodak to produce digital projection methods, JVC knows the interests and fears of distributors well. "Digital is inevitable," he says, echoing the general consensus, "But even though the technology's there, it's a matter of changing the status quo. The distribution infrastructure is very well entrenched."

Exhibiting Resistance

Excitement and hype about digital cinema is building like a snowball down a hill, but where it comes to a jarring halt is on the doorstep of exhibitor apathy.

"I'm still not seeing any reason why cinemas would want to change how they exhibit feature films, simply because of the cost," says Atlab's Dominic Case. "In fact, over the past year a lot of the major players who've been pushing these systems have put them on the back burner a bit."

By all accounts, lasseiz-fare commerce alone won't usher digital system into projection booths. Everyone along the supply chain has to get together, decide on standards and agree to share the cost. More installations around the world will prompt a critical mass of price reduction and before long digital won't cost any more than celluloid does now.

But even when an economic model emerges that the big boys like, we can't forget the place independents occupy in the exhibitor marketplace, and the indirect damage digital exhibition may do them.

Without media conglomerate backing, Mark Sarfaty knows how hard it is marketing movies to a narrow audience. As the head of Dendy Cinemas, his concern is that independent operators will fall victim to a whole new digital divide.

"Our business tends towards monopoly players," Sarfaty says, "and if digital exhibition becomes mandatory, the small and regional players are the least able to afford it. Ultimately, that may be a problem for Australian independent filmmakers because it'll kill the market they're cultivating. When the times comes, film funding bodies are going to have to look at how Australian exhibition – particularly the independent sector – can be helped through the transition."

Paving the Way

Because of some high-profile efforts (the digital screening of Disney's Finding Nemo in Sydney and David Bowie's live September 9 concert that was transmitted digitally all over the world, allowing for a global Q&A with the star), audiences are learning about the promise of digital cinema to them.

But it has to impress exhibitors to catch on, and so several experiments going on around the country are smoothing the way. Digital cinema technology is ready to roll, according to David Sanderson – Manager Digital Cinema, Kodak – and they're in the midst of proving it.

"While we're waiting for [the digital feature film revolution] to happen, we've got networks, software – everything we need for the future of movies – designed and ready to go," he says. "We're moving into the pre-show area, working with advertising content providers to supply smaller projectors to display ads and announcements. It networks the cinema ready and gives them some expertise in handling digital."

At Atlab, Dominic Case is pre-empting the digital revolution in the same way. "We've been developing and supplying low-end digital projectors in conjunction with Val Morgan for a number of theatres," he says, "So what used to be the old carousel slides for the local Chinese restaurant or RSL club are now done digitally."

Additional Revenue

One of the lesser realised aspects of digital cinema is that for the first time ever, it might allow for more than just watching a movie. Dominic Case goes so far as to say digital projection of movies is 'a waste of the great thing about digital technology'.

"It seems crazy to show a feature film from the beginning, go through to the end and stop," he says. "Celluloid's ideal for that, but there's the potential for a lot of additional media."

And while it might spell the end of the movie industry's total control over cinema content, Rick McCallum points out that the flexibility digital offers works in Hollywood's favour too.

"Take a film like Chopper, which was difficult to market," he says, "Not everyone wants to see a movie like that, but it's a great film and a wonderful calling card for a new group of filmmakers. To distribute that on film is so difficult, but digitally, it can screen once a night at midnight in five or six thousand different cities. It opens up another whole channel that's not available to difficult films because it's too expensive to make and distribute prints."

From talk of cutting different versions of a movie for different target audiences to easier handling available to film festivals (simply a point and click in some cases), the potential of extra revenue for cinemas seems endless – freeing them from the pressure to show the same dry, profit-safe movie content.

It might take a few social shifts ("What do I want to do at the football?" Dendy's Sarfaty asks, "I want stand up and yell and drink my beer and eat my pie. Would I as a cinema operator let people do that in my cinemas? Forget it"), but the flexibility offers undreamed of possibilities.

The Future is Now

Digital cinema is here, locking horns with investor resistance. While pro-digital decision makers drive more movies to be made digitally (most companies dabbling in digital projection are already active in digital image acquisition), maybe enough cost savings will trickle through the film economy to make it economically possible.

And when that happens – watch out. 35mm film stock might be a purist's luxury, as quaint and fondly remembered as we consider the gramophone.

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