Digital Projection in Theaters Slowed by Dispute

For a while now, movie studios have been touting digital projectors that will drastically improve the look of movies on the big screen. They would also save studios millions of dollars, as bulky reels of film pass into oblivion.

But the change requires exhibitors to invest in the new technology, as well. That leaves an important question open to dispute: Who should pay for the upgrades — studios or theaters?

For at least seven years, film studios and theaters have been hyping digital projectors and the crisp, clear picture quality they will bring to movie screens.

Yet the vast majority of the nation's cinemas are still using old analog projectors. Despite the economic and visual advantages of digital projection, out of the nation's more than 38,000 movie screens, only around 2,200 have digital projectors.

After years of dispute about payment, theater owners and studios finally found a business plan.

For several years, the studios will pay a fee on each digital copy they make to defray the theaters' costs of installing digital projectors. But while studios and theater owners have been squabbling over details, some say audiences have been missing out.

At most movie theaters, viewers didn't see the Star Wars films as George Lucas envisioned them. With film prints, quality degrades with each copy and every showing.

Rick McCallum produced the last three Star Wars movies.

"I traveled to 60 cities across America," McCallum says. "I went to small towns, I went to big towns. I went to where ever the films were playing. And I was so dismayed, I was so appalled. I couldn't believe how truly bad it was."

McCallum worries that by the time digital projectors are installed in most theaters, audience will be smaller, as people opt to see movies on their home entertainment systems and plasma TVs.

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