The annals of film history enshrine the movies that heralded breakthroughs in cinematic technology. There’s The Jazz Singer in 1927, which was the first feature with sound; Becky Sharp in 1935, which pioneered three-color Technicolor; and Glory Road, which…
Glory Road ?
Yes, Glory Road. You may have missed it, but earlier this year that Disney feature about a scrappy Texas basketball team became the first motion picture released in a standardized digital form. Setting aside their film projectors, 29 theater owners ran the movie as a stream of bits from a stack of hard drives. In earlier attempts to launch digital technology, movies were encoded to play on proprietary systems, beginning with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, which hit two screens in New Jersey and two more in California on 19 May 1999. The largest nonstandard digital release was the three-dimensional version of Chicken Little, which played on 100 screens in late 2005.
But by the end of this year more than 2000 North American theaters will be projecting bits instead of frames; by the end of 2007, more than 5000 North American screens will be digital. And the digital invasion is advancing around the globe. In Ireland, for example, 500 screens will be digital by the middle of 2007; in India, 2500 will convert by the end of that year.
After nearly a decade of talk and no action on the commercial front, digital cinema is taking the world by storm. The reason for the tempest? In a word: standards. On 27 July 2005, seven movie studios got together and published the first specification for digital cinema, and the motion picture industry launched its biggest transition since black-and-white movies gave way to color.
The ongoing shift to digital cinema will bring major benefits to moviegoers, theater owners, and the movie studios. For moviegoers, the move will mean a larger variety of features and possibly even other entertainment at their local movie theaters. The movies will have higher-quality images, and there will be more offerings in a 3-D format. In a digital world, much of the expense and difficulty of displaying a movie in 3-D disappears, and 3-D becomes a real option for moviemakers instead of just a gimmick [see sidebar, “Digital Cinema: Another Dimension”].
For theater owners, digital will make movies easier and cheaper to handle, ship, store, and discard. But for these exhibitors, the biggest benefit may turn out to be the simple ability to replicate a movie on-site for showing on multiple screens when it becomes an unexpected hit.
Studios will also save money—lots of it: the movie industry estimates that it currently spends close to US $1 billion annually to process and ship 35-millimeter films to theaters; it expects to save several hundreds of millions of dollars when 35-mm films are replaced with digital releases. Already, too, new applications are starting to emerge, including the showing of live sports events, legitimate theater offerings, and even operas at movie theaters.
While the bits themselves are much cheaper to replicate than reels of film, the up-front costs of putting a digital picture in front of a theater audience are about $100 000 per screen compared with about $35 000 for the corresponding film projection equipment. (The cost of the sound system is basically unchanged.)
And therein lies the rub. Theater owners who considered running digital pictures balked at making that kind of investment without assurance that the technology would be compatible with the offerings of all movie studios for the long term.
For instance, when Boeing Digital Cinema, CineComm, and Technicolor introduced incompatible digital cinema systems back in 2001, they didn’t catch on. The systems supplied by CineComm worked only with a particular brand of projector made by a Hughes/JVC joint venture, and that projector didn’t reproduce colors in the same manner as the new projectors being shipped by Texas Instruments. Lack of interoperable standards meant that each system required a separate master, or else the color red on one projector system, for example, might display as pink on the other.
Meanwhile, the Technicolor system used a compression technology from Qualcomm, which was completely incompatible with the more standard MPEG (for Motion Picture Experts Group) compression used by the Boeing system. Studios had to produce two completely different digital files. The situation was, frankly, a mess.