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Theaters on path to digital films

Posted by: , 15:36 AEDT, Mon December 19, 2005
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A group of major theater owners, representing more than a third of the screens in the United States, said Thursday that they will join forces to upgrade their theaters to new digital projection technology.

While the plan is still short on details or a specific timeline, it is one of the biggest steps yet in the film industry's slow move to replace film reels and whirring projectors with arrays of satellite receivers, servers and digital files.

A small number of theaters are already in the process of installing digital technology that conforms to standards set by Hollywood last June. The group of majors, which includes AMC Entertainment, Cinemark USA and Regal Entertainment, said it will collectively negotiate with equipment providers and potential funding sources to bring that process mainstream.

"We're going to start working immediately with manufacturers," said Kurt Hall, chief executive officer of the three chains' digital-technology joint venture, called National CineMedia. "There are some big issues that still have to be taken care of, such as security and operating processes, and all of that is going to take some time. We need to make sure we get it right."

The move to digital cinema represents a huge upheaval in the movie business, potentially costing well over $3 billion and transforming the way theaters operate. Theater owners and studio executives each have compared it to the move from silent to sound films in terms of its impact.

From a consumer's point of view, that might be overstating the case a bit, because movies will still be produced roughly the way they are today. But digital projection will provide pictures that are substantially clearer, with richer colors, than today's film projectors, and far outstrip the clarity of even the most high-definition TV screens.

Studios themselves have been among the biggest backers of the move away from film, because they will be able to send digital files to theaters over a satellite or fiber-optic connection instead of paying roughly $1,500 per copy for each individual film showing at the approximately 37,000 screens around the country.

Theater owners too have been well-disposed to the idea as they have watched audiences fall off over the last year, and seen growing competition from high-quality home theater systems. Digital projection will give them the ability to show 3D moves such as Disney's recent "Chicken Little," as well as beam in new kinds of content like live concerts and sports events that could fill seats on slow weekdays and afternoons.

"The programming we can show today has to be in 35mm celluloid, and that limits what we can do," said Peter Brown, chief executive officer of AMC Entertainment. "I think digital will open up a world of programming opportunities for us." Credit: CNet News


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