Techs unspool digital pic push

Boeing, Qualcomm to equip theaters by Nov.

HOLLYWOOD — The rollout of digital cinema may be coming sooner rather than later.

Both Boeing Digital Cinema and Qualcomm said Thursday that as early as November they will begin equipping theaters with their technologies to distribute and project pics electronically. The rollout is anticipated to cover dozens of screens initially and to reach its widest point with thousands of screens within three years.

The installation announcement, aimed at generating enthusiasm among exhibitors, comes six months after both companies unveiled their digital cinema plans in March at ShoWest in Las Vegas.

Fiber optic networker Qualcomm, working closely with film lab Technicolor, declined to disclose specifics. Boeing Digital Cinema said it will install its open-architecture satellite-based distribution system in 10 theaters across the country before the end of the year, with plans to equip thousands more over the next two years.

“We’re using these first cinemas for testing purposes,” said Frank Stirling, executive director of digital cinema for Boeing Satellite Systems, a division of the airplane manufacturing giant. “We then want to work with the industry at large to see what makes sense going forward.”

Conversion costs

Qualcomm is expected to finance the conversion of 1,000 theaters nationwide. The company had originally planned to roll out its technology in October.

The companies made the announcement during a panel discussion titled “The Future of Digital Cinema — Is it Now?” sponsored by law firm Morrison & Foerster at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Thursday.

Panelists agreed that while the quality of current digital projectors on the market is as good or better than that of 35mm film projectors, the rollout of digital cinema itself is still dependent upon several factors.

Distributors and exhibitors are still haggling over projection and compression standards issues, security concerns and, primarily, over who will pay for the conversion of theaters to digital.

“We’re talking about sending a film to a theater that’s just as good or a little better than film,” said Larry Gleason, a technology consultant and former distrib chief with MGM. “Projectors last forever. Why buy a new projector if it won’t sell more tickets? No one knows how much they will cost or how long they will last.”

Technicolor and Qualcomm have floated a proposal to finance theater conversions by taking a few cents out of each B.O. dollar to pay for the costs, estimated at about $100,000 to $150,000 per auditorium, while Boeing Digital Cinema has previously pitched its Boeing Capital division to assist exhibs with financing.

Improvements in security have helped the studios seek the assurance they need that digital distribution won’t heighten the threat of pic piracy, panelists said. New methods, such as the digital watermarking of films and invisible alterations to a film when projected, are also being developed to prevent pirates from videotaping films inside theaters.

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