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For more than seven years, film studios and theaters have been hyping digital projectors and the crisp, clear picture quality they'll bring to movie screens. But the vast majority of the nation's cinemas are still using old analog projectors.
NPR's Laura Sydell looks at what's taking so long, and what digital projectors will actually add to the movie-going experience.
(Soundbite of movie projector)
LAURA SYDELL: That sound is likely to vanish from movie theaters over the next decade. Slowly, theaters across the country are installing digital projectors, and the sound of turning one on is nearly the hum of a fan keeping the bulb cool.
(Soundbite of fan)
SYDELL: This digital projector is in Landmark Theater in San Francisco where Erin Probst(ph) is a projectionist. With digital, she no longer has to thread a film through a projector.
Ms. ERIN PROBST (Projectionist, Landmark Theater, San Francisco): Our movies arrive on hard drives. We plug our hard drive into our (unintelligible) digital server. It uploads the films - I should say the movie - onto its own internal hard drive, and then it's ready to go.
SYDELL: The inside of a projector is like a house of mirrors. Digital instructions control the projection of colored light onto millions of mirrors that reflect it through a lens. That light appears on the screen as a moving image. Although complicated on the inside, digital projectors are a lot easier to use than film. Proponents say the picture's better, and it's also significantly cheaper. Landmark is a comparatively small national chain of 60 theaters that specialize in independent movies. The company is also affiliated with independent film distribution.
Unidentified Woman: Thursday night, about 30 hooded gunmen stormed two villages in (unintelligible) town.
SYDELL: Cavite, a thriller that was made by two young Filipino-American moviemakers, was popular at film festivals across the country. But normally, Landmark wouldn't be able to afford to distribute this movie because of the high cost of making film copies - about $1,200 each.
Landmark CEO Bill Banowsky says Cavite and other small independent films get shown in Landmark theaters now because digital projection makes distribution cheap.
Mr. BILL BANOWSKY (CEO, Landmark Theaters): All you're doing is you're transferring digital media, no different than you would do in sending an e-mail. Oftentimes, we'll send a hard drive via UPS, so the cost maybe $15-20 to do that. We are now at a place where we can send film files over DSL lines, which we already have at our theaters, so there's very little if any cost in doing that.
SYDELL: Benowsky says the lower cost of digital will allow his and larger theater chains to have limited runs of movies with small but substantial audiences, and it will give theaters more flexibility about adding extra showings of popular movies. Landmark is unusual. Despite the clear economic advantages of digital projection of the nation's more than 38,000 movie screens, only 2,200 have digital projectors. That's according to the National Association of Theater Owners, or NATO. The organization represents cinema owners around the world. John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO, says getting these projectors out there is a complicated process.
Mr. JOHN FITHIAN (President and CEO, National Association of Theater Owners): Digital cinema is probably the biggest technological transition in the cinema business since the advent of sound. It is a complete retooling of how films are distributed and exhibited and projected to our patrons. In order to make this substantial transition to these new technologies, we needed to take the time to get it right.
SYDELL: Fithian says theater owners and movie studios had to agree on standards so that the digital films that arrive at the theaters will play on the projectors. But a big sticking point has been who is going to pay. Mark Christiansen - executive vice president for motion picture distribution at Paramount - admits that the movie studios stand to gain the most financially.
Mr. MARK CHRISTIANSEN (Executive Vice President, Paramount): Because we aren't producing 35mm prints, which are fairly expensive. And most of the cost is in the theater because you're buying a brand new digital system, which costs many, many thousands of dollars.
SYDELL: 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 theater's cost of installing digital projectors. But while studios and theater owners have been squabbling over details, some say audiences have been missing out.
(Soundbite of music, "Theme from Star Wars")
SYDELL: At Skywalker Ranch, the home of Lucasfilms and the production center for the "Star Wars" movies, I sit down in what Mike Blanchard, the head of postproduction, says is a state-of-the-art digital theater.
It does have a very different feeling from going to most movie theaters. It feels more three-dimensional.
Mr. MIKE BLANCHARD (Head of Postproduction, Lucasfilms): Yes, it does. It's more immersive. It's just - projection is perfect, the light levels are where they're supposed to be. It looks like the movie did when George was color timing it and we're been working on it, and working with the sound, and putting all that hard work into it.
SYDELL: At most movie theaters, viewers didn't see the movie that George Lucas envisioned. With film prints, quality degrades with each copy and every showing. Rick McCallum produced the last three "Star Wars" movies.
Mr. RICK MCCALLUM (Producer, the "Star Wars" Series): I travel to 60 cities across America. I went to small towns. I went to big towns. I went to wherever the films were playing, and I was so dismayed. I was so appalled. I couldn't believe how truly bad it was.
SYDELL: McCallum worries that by the time digital projectors are installed in most theaters, audiences will be smaller, as people opt for their home entertainment system and plasma TV.
Mr. MCCALLUM: When you pay $10 and another $5 or $6 or $7 for, you know, popcorn and everything else and parking and baby sitter and everything else, you want to be able to see something that reasonably has the quality that you know if you wait 10 weeks, you can get it on DVD and you'll have a greater chance of seeing a film that more closely resembles what a filmmaker's made.
SYDELL: Well, maybe not. Take the Academy Award winning film, "Million Dollar Baby," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman.
(Soundbite of movie, "Million Dollar Baby")
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): (as Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris) Nah, I leave this place for one day. Got any idea what it would look like when I come back?
Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD (Director, Actor): (as Frankie Dunn) Kind of like it looks right now.
SYDELL: The New Yorker film critic David Denby remembers those scenes of the gym in "Million Dollar Baby" and how they looked when shown on a film projector.
Mr. DAVID DENBY (Film critic, New Yorker): The gym, the Hit Pit - where so much of the action takes place - looked kind of dinked and dingy and filthy, and your impression of it was well, this is a bottom-end place. So there are these two noble guys who are still working there and training young fighters. But it's just one step away from total palookaville.
SYDELL: Digital makes everything look crispier. The light is brighter, and less is lost in the shadows. Denby says the same gym looked different when shown on a digital copy with a digital projector.
Mr. DENBY: And you saw all kinds of things in the background that you couldn't see before, and it didn't look dirty. It just looked old. In fact, it look like it had been, you know, someone had been working and cleaning and scrubbing. In other words, it was a different experience.
SYDELL: However, Denby says it's possible that as digital gets better and directors learn how to get the most out of the new technology, the experience will more closely resemble film. Denby knows there's also no way to stop the movement towards digital at home and in theaters. Still, he laments the fact that over the next two decades, the word film is likely to become an anachronism.
Laura Sydell, NPR news.
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