After years of hearing about how the movie business was on the verge of scrapping its century-old optical projection technology for new computer-based imaging systems, it really looks like we're now on the verge of seeing the filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors do just that. In this month's feature "Bits on the Big Screen", digital film expert Russell Wintner explains how the rollout is gathering momentum and coming soon to a theater near you.

Wintner, the president and chief operating officer of a firm specializing in digital content management and delivery, compares the revolution taking place in the movies now to the dramatic change that occurred in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer, in which crooner Al Jolson could be heard speaking on-screen. The "talkies" ended the silent-film era in just a few short years. Likewise, digital film production and presentation should put an end to the analog process of running heavy reels of celluloid through a complex loop to a shutter illuminated by an intense light source through lenses onto the screen.

By the end of this year, Wintner notes, 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. The reason for such a rapid conversion after a decade of logjams? Simple: standardization.

On 27 July 2005, Wintner explains, seven movie studios—Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, and Warner Brothers 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 shift promises more than just an easier workload for those lonely film projectionists in the theaters.

For moviegoers, the move will mean a larger variety of films and possibly even other entertainment at their local theaters. The movies will have higher-quality images, and there will be more offerings in a 3-D format. For theater owners, digital will make movies easier and cheaper to handle, ship, store, and discard. And for the studios, the payoff should come in the form of, well, a payoff. Wintner writes that the production houses spend close to US $1 billion annually to process and ship 35-millimeter films to theaters. The conversion to digital distribution could save them several hundreds of millions of dollars.

After reading Wintner's insightful article on the digital revolution taking place in the multiplexes, you can keep up with the silver screen's drama by visiting the following sites:

Filmmaker Mel Brooks once was asked, "What's the hardest part of making a movie?" He famously replied, "Cutting out all the little holes in the sides of the film." Well, pretty soon that part of creating a motion picture will be lifted from his shoulders.


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