New theater system touts old favorite

Here we go again: A new theater projection system, years in the making, promises to revolutionize the exhibition business and provide a boost to studios and theater owners’ bottom lines. The system uses what its proponents claim is the most advanced medium available for storing motion picture images.

Sound familiar? Here’s the twist: The medium is good old-fashioned 35mm film.

Flying in the face of the prevailing wisdom that digital projection is the inevitable future of exhibition, film editor Dean Goodhill has spent the past four years quietly overseeing the design of a film-based system that he believes will change the way people see movies forever.

MaxiVision 48, as he calls it, offers a far crisper image than current 35mm projectors — or any of the digital systems that recently have made huge strides in emulating film quality. And because much of the traditional projector system remains the same, the cost of upgrading will be a small fraction of the $100,000 or so per screen digital units are expected to cost.

Digital resistance

Still, it’s clear Goodhill faces an uphill fight against the fast-growing digital revolution, especially given the recent endorsements from the likes of George Lucas.

So far, a handful of filmmakers, cinematographers and executives — and one journalist — has gotten a glimpse of MaxiVision, which exists only as a Rube Goldberg-like prototype in the offices of San Luis Obispo engineering firm Trust Automation.

But for that select few, seeing is believing. “It’s pretty amazing,” enthused Mitch Goldman, former New Line president of distribution and marketing, who recently made the trip to California’s Central Coast. “It’s a superior image to anything you can see in the theater today.”

What MaxiVision doesn’t promise is the drastic reduction in distribution costs that has attracted studios to digital systems. In fact, because MaxiVision achieves its highest image quality by using a display rate of 48 frames per second — as opposed to the standard 24 — the cost of release prints and shooting stock actually will be higher than standard 35mm.

Imax inspiration

But Goodhill believes MaxiVision’s enhanced picture quality has the potential to increase ticket sales. One need look no further than the success of large-format theaters such as Imax, Goodhill said, to understand the importance of presentation in attracting moviegoers. “People are paying $8 to see documentaries they wouldn’t watch on the Discovery Channel.”

Indeed, distribution and exhibition execs alike have credited megaplexes with such amenities as stadium seating, large, curved screens and digital sound with raising cinema attendance to a 30-year high. But while many aspects of moviegoing have been improved, Goodhill said, picture quality remains basically unchanged since the invention of CinemaScope in 1952.

Michael Targoff, chairman and CEO of CineComm Digital Cinema, said he isn’t fazed by the prospect of a higher-quality film-based system.

“Our point of entry into the market is to be comparable to today’s 35mm film projection, but that’s not our end goal. We are constantly going to be working on all sorts of things to enhance the experience in ways film just physically can’t do. If the requirement of the standard is to increase the frame rate, we will provide that at an even greater cost benefit than we do today.”

Goodhill contended there are still technical obstacles facing digital film distribution. For one thing, the process of converting a full-length movie at MaxiVision 48’s high-resolution level would be a costly and hugely time-consuming process. He noted that neither CineComm nor Texas Instruments, two digital projection system makers that took part in a well-publicized “shoot-out” at this year’s ShoWest, actually have demonstrated a satellite download of a feature film.

Targoff said CineComm plans such a demo in a few months, but acknowledged that a production version of the satellite-based system won’t be ready for at least a year and a half.

Format flexibility

One of MaxiVision’s key selling points — and the most difficult one to achieve, Goodhill said — is its ability to play prints formatted in traditional 1.85 or CinemaScope, which use four perforations per frame, as well as MaxiVision, which uses a three-perf pull-down, and to switch from one to the other on the fly. To do this required creating a computer-controlled electronic projector head that does away with the “Geneva Movement” mechanism that is at the core of every projector built since the early 1900s.

Goodhill and co-founder Don Behrns began working on MaxiVision in 1996 on a shoestring budget. (The short test scene they use to demonstrate the process was shot in the parking lot of Panavision because they couldn’t afford the insurance to take the rental camera off premises).

After two Oscar-winning Los Angeles-based engineering firms were unable to design an electronic projector motor to their specifications, Goodhill and Behrns hooked up with San Luis Obispo-based Trust Automation, which makes everything from robotic arms used to make Intel Pentium chips to spy satellite photo scanners.

Goodhill said backward compatibility with existing 35mm formats is what separates MaxiVision from previous failed attempts at alternative film formats, such as Todd-AO’s Compact Distribution Print and ShowScan.

Goodhill himself is no Luddite. His editing credits include “The Fugitive,” the first major feature to use the Avid digital editing system, which is in widespread use today.

In its finished form, MaxiVision will include other innovative features such as film registration to provide a steadier image, a vacuum-based film-cleaning system and constant equipment monitoring via the Internet.

Quality is key

But it’s the image quality that has attracted the attention of such filmmakers as cameraman Steve Poster, vice president of the American Society of Cinematographers, to MaxiVision. He believes that as home theater systems continue to improve, exhibition will need to offer viewers a reason to go out to the movies.

Poster, who has shot in high-definition TV and described himself as an early adopter, is put off by what he sees as a “PR juggernaut” promoting electronic cinema. “I’ve examined it very closely, and I think it’s a big hype job about something that isn’t ready for primetime and isn’t going to be ready for some time.”

Still, the potential cost savings that digital promises, and Lucas’ recent endorsement of the technology, mean MaxiVision will face an uphill battle gaining acceptance with studios.

Or as Goldman put it, “I don’t know if anyone’s going to be able to stop the digital revolution.”

Some key elements of the MaxiVision format:

  • By displaying 48 frames per second, as opposed to the standard 24, MaxiVision provides a startlingly sharp image, particularly during pans or when showing moving objects.

  • By eliminating the analog soundtrack and using three perforations per frame instead of four, MaxiVision increases the film image area by about 31% per frame, while yielding a 25% more efficient use of film stock.

  • Ability to change from four-perf to three-perf pull-down on the fly ensures backward compatibility with existing 35mm formats.

  • Film registration will drastically reduce vertical and horizontal movement (“jitter” and “weave”), further increasing sharpness.

  • Vacuum-based film cleaning unit will remove grit, which causes scratches.

  • Internet-based monitoring system will ensure reliability and image quality (now being developed by Andersen Consulting).
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