There’s going to be a shootout this week in Dallas. But the weapons won’t be guns; they’ll be high-tech theatrical projectors, many of them filmless digital models.
At Infocomm, a multimedia technology confab slated for June 12-17 at the Dallas Convention Center, companies that make high-end projectors will participate in the Projection Shoot-Out, in which various pieces of exhibition gear square off to see which yields the best images.
Among the exhibitors is Sony Electronics, which recently signed an agreement with Texas Instruments to evaluate a jointly developed high definition projection system.
Sony isn’t alone in seeing filmless delivery of motion pictures as viable within the next few years; other companies doing research and development in digital exhibition include Barco, Texas Instruments, AmPro and Pacific Telesis.
The systems in development would deliver digital data that could be decoded and presented to an audience in a theater.
As with high-definition television, the challenge for electronic cinema is to offer high-resolution images while providing viewers with an experience more akin to viewing film than video.
Sony Pics’ efforts in this area have yielded a two-projector system that is adequate for small rooms but is not designed for use in large auditoriums, according to John Gait, VP of creative services at Sony Pictures High Definition Center.
Those who have seen demos of numerous digital projection systems for theaters say the superior one is made by a team of engineers from Hughes Corp. and JVC.
“It’s the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen them all,” says Larry Jacobson, AMC Theatres senior VP of design, development and facilities.
San Diego-based Qualcomm, a company involved in satellite distribution of digital images for motion pictures, has an agreement with Hughes-JVC. “For digital cinema, we are interested in the extreme high end, which is Hughes-JVC,” says Carol Hahn, Qualcomm’s business development manager for electronic cinema. “Right now, they really are setting the standard for brightness and high-resolution picture.”
While U.S. exhibitors aren’t quite ready to sign any deals, Hahn says her company is in negotiations with theater chains in Europe, Asia and South America. She expects to begin announcing installations before the end of this year.
But even the technology’s greatest champions readily point to plenty of problems.
Near the top of that list is the need to transmit images with high enough resolution (various experts cite resolution figures ranging from 800 to 2,000 horizontal lines across the screen, as opposed to the 525-line U.S. television standard), brightness and contrast.
Says Jacobson, “Most of what I’ve seen is as bad as 50-year-old TV.”
Gait emphasizes, however, that digital cinema can be an acceptable alternative to film delivery only if it is held to a different set of standards for evaluation. “Thirty-five millimeter film is not necessarily the criteria,” he says.
He points to the phenomenon of bigscreen video screening at stadiums, where the video quality is poor compared with a movie theater or home TV screen. In Toronto, for instance, thousands of people flocked to the Skydome to watch the last episode of “Cheers” on Sony’s Jumbotron. They were less concerned with the picture quality than with the overall entertainment experience.
“Figuring out what an audience will accept has more to do with program content than quality,” Gait believes. “If the cost of distribution is low enough because you’re not sending prints in and out, it could open up new avenues for distributors and exhibitors,” he says.
Qualcomm’s Hahn agrees that cost control is a factor driving the development of digital cinema. “There are economic advantages to distributing a digitized copy of a film, as opposed to the truck and Fed-Ex system that we use now.”
Not everyone buys into that line of thinking. In a talk to financial analysts in New York last month, Eastman Kodak’s general manager of its Motion Picture and Television Imaging unit, Henri Petit, emphasized the company’s position that digital cinema is still a long way from becoming a practical reality.
Reasons for delays in developing the technology are many, Petit said. “An electronic projection system that approaches film quality on a large screen would be priced at three to four times the cost of a motion picture projector. And it could require a different geometry of the theater, making it difficult to retrofit existing facilities.”
Keep the faith
But Gait joins other equipment developers in maintaining the belief that digital delivery is only a few years away.
“I really do think at least a couple of the major players are pretty close,” he says. “I would think that the main contenders – Hughes-JVC and Texas Instruments – have a lot of resources behind them.”
And Sony can’t be counted out of the race, he adds. “Sony spends an awful lot of money in research and development, so I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that you rule us out.”