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Through a Virtual Eye

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Considering it's the oldest visual medium in human history, cinema is the only one still not part of the digital age.

One of the most iconic images in the movies is Clint Eastwood facing down some handlebar-moustached bandido in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.

It's a fitting metaphor for a similar standoff happening behind the scenes right now – between the motives that make digital cinema essential to the movie industry but ironically might render it too expensive and complicated to implement.

You've probably heard the word ‘digital' applied to the movies before, and that's because digital technology has already transformed the business – but only as far as the cinema's doorstep. Over the last five years, shooting on digital film has become an entirely new creative avenue for a director to consider, with visual, budgetary and logistical advantages.

No Hollywood movie is complete without digital effects nowadays, where special effects are painted onto frames of film by a computer and sounds or colours are isolated and manipulated for maximum effect. The last digital steps are at the world's film labs, after which tens of thousands of copies of the movie are printed on 35mm film reels for distribution to cinemas.

If You're Not First, You're Last

Digital cinema is where a movie is shown through a projector straight from a digital file, the same way you project a PowerPoint presentation onto a boardroom wall.

It means no more backbreaking film canisters, courier trucks, scratches on the picture or ‘clunk' at the back of the theatre when the projector automatically changes reels. So why does one of the biggest, most expensive parts of the process still use century-old technology when the rest of the supply chain can work with nothing but computer files?

The first incentive for digital cinema to get here fast is the cost of distributing movies. A single film print can cost anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000 depending on several factors. A Hollywood blockbuster expected to do hundreds of millions in business can open on tens of thousands of screens worldwide – often on the same day in this age of anti-piracy measures.

Then the distributor pays to transport prints all over its territory, from every CBD multiplex to the movie night at every small town community hall, and that's before collecting them again for environmentally friendly disposal at the end of their cinematic run.

And because distributors take on the risk doesn't mean studios are immune. The studios own the big distributors nowadays, so the inflated salaries of above-the-title stars and marketing budgets like the GDPs of small nations squeeze their profitability even further. It's said DVD sales is the only revenue stream propping the Hollywood system up in the age of $100m movie.

Last to feel the pinch are cinemas, who pay dearly for their suburban shopping mall leases. Without high concept blockbusters that have teenagers lining up down the escalators, they simply can't afford to survive.

But the return on investment of digital goes much further than not having to handle an expensive film print. Unshackled from minimum runs to justify handling costs, cinemas could ask for more diversity from distributors, which will in turn open the door to a huge number of new voices in filmmaking. Small independent cinemas could play cult movies from midnight to dawn without paying for prints, filling dead time with paying customers and maybe forging their own unique niche.

In fact, showing movies is only the beginning. Concerts and sports events have already screened live in digital cinemas. Imagine how easy it would be for an eclectic festival to collect films for its program? Or how much you could broaden your target audience by releasing multiple versions of your film – one for every classification?

Film projectors are long lasting and the current quality of digital projectors means they'll need replacing every five years or so, but with that and the savings of not handling prints taken into account, a rough calculation points to the cost of screening a digital film totalling around half that of a 35mm reel equivalent.

Finally there's the irony that the film industry's saviour – DVD – is now its biggest threat. You can play the movie with hours of extras weeks after the cinematic release on a home theatre system with picture quality much better than a film projector. Suddenly, a large number of audiences need a new reason to go back to the movies…

They're here...

It might surprise you to learn many urban Australian cinemas have digital projectors already. Have you noticed that the single-slide ads are a lot clearer, the colours a lot more consistent, the voiceover in the correct order – instead of showing you a dish of honey prawns while telling you about a special on brake tests?

Pre-show programs – the ads – are being screened digitally, but it's a long way from screening the whole film. Pre-show projectors are low grade, suited to only their single-frame purpose. To digitally screen film, projectors must conform to a standard called the DCI, or Digital Cinema Initiative.

In July 2005 the DCI, a project of the major US studios, announced the final draft of ‘voluntary specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema'. Together with technology partners and exhibitors (cinemas), that means they've agreed to the technical parameters everyone must adhere to for receiving and screening movies digitally from any big American studio.

Not everyone's so excited. It's not often George Lucas and fellow buster of blocks Steven Spielberg sit on opposing sides of the fence, but the ET: The Extra Terrestrial and Saving Private Ryan director is one of several Hollywood directors who've vowed to keep shooting on film.

And as Troy Lum, director of local independent Hopscotch – the distributor behind Fahrenheit 9/11 – put it; " [Distribution] assumes a lot of local knowledge, and what I worry about is that when films are digital it'll change distribution so much we'll just be publicists. We're losing the essence of distribution."

Depending on what you think a film distributor's job should be, Lum might have a point. In just a couple of the methods of digital film delivery, traditional distributors need not handle the film at all. Part of the DCI measures include security encryption and access standards, so theoretically when a film's ready for release, a studio executive might simply click a button and send a message to over 100,000 movie theatre servers worldwide to start downloading the digital file containing the movie.

The telecommunications infrastructure to distribute digital content is all around us already – it's probably on your office or spare room desk right now. Whether your cinema is in a telecommunication line-rich urban region or a rural area where you'd need commercial grade satellite data access, if you can get the Internet you can play DCI compliant movies.

Of course, dealing with a digital movie doesn't mean you're stuck with sending it over the Internet – perhaps a good thing in a country like Australia notorious for its substandard rural coverage. Although the resolution needed by a cinema screen means a movie would be too big to fit on a current generation DVD, the recently-released Blu-Ray and HD DVD formats hold much more data. And just look at the digital distributor network in IT-happy India, where distributors travel the country by train with portable hard drives, uploading the file to one movie house server at a time.

A Bug in the System

So after all that good news, what's the problem? Just a little case of misaligned economics.

A lot of cost-sharing plans are springing up across the US that are resulting in closer links between the technology vendors, cinemas and distributors. But digital projectors cost anywhere from USD$100-200,000 per unit. Ask many cinema operators and they'll tell you audiences go to see a good story and interesting characters, not a beautiful picture. Outlaying that much money won't bring more people through the door, and if they raised ticket prices enough to cover the cost it would lead to open revolt or tumbleweeds rolling past the ticket counter.

It's the distributors and studios that are going to save money – by not having to earmark hundreds of millions to send a movie around the world as they do currently. And why, as cinema operators ask themselves (perhaps rightly) should they fork out that much for someone else higher up to benefit from the cost saving?

The technology is in place from the top down. The standards and practices have been agreed upon and the first few tentative steps have been taken by thousands of cinemas around the world. But if studio profitability is indeed the house of cards many think it is, ravaged on every side by market forces picture theatres of old never had to deal with, digital cinema might not arrive soon enough...

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