Digital future arriving faster than expectations

With filmmakers increasingly embracing the digital format, and Cannes offering digital fest screenings of “Spirit” and “Star Wars: Episode Two: Attack of the Clones,” few doubt the future is made up of ones and zeroes.

“But nobody thought the speed and scope of change would be so fast,” said Peter Broderick, prexy of New Wave Films. “Four years ago, 95% thought I was crazy; now it’s down to 15!”

Clearly, none of that 15% was at Variety‘s Digital Cinema Conference Tuesday, though the panel and the audience were keener to talk production than distribution and exhibition.

Barco marketing maven Keith Morris (whose company is providing all nine of the fest’s digital projectors) has “seen business double in the past three years,” forecasting “exhibitors will want to gain a competitive advantage, and ‘Star Wars’ has proven it works with seat sales.”

Boeing Digital Cinema topper Frank Stirling laid out a vision of seamless studio-to-plex delivery, promising total copyright protection. The “business case,” he added, is still in the works; “we want it to be affordable.”

Denis Kelly, Kodak cinema operations manager of Europe, agreed it “is a wonderful opportunity,” but pointed out the still-inhibiting cost factor: $180,000 for a digital projector, versus $25,000 for an analog.

To put the whole thing in perspective: Worldwide, there are only some 100 “D” cinemas (Hollywood stuff) and maybe 200 “E” cinemas (HD, DV, Mini-DV) and the jury’s still out on the quality. Moderator Broderick summarized the panel’s feelings as “some feel digital quality is better than 35mm. Most are optimistic the difference in quality will grow.”

Bernard Collard, sales and marketing maven of servers-R-us, EVS Digital Cinema, wondered if there is a need at the moment “for a Formula 1 car if you’re just taking the kids to school” — i.e., why upgrade if moviegoers can’t really tell the difference? But he agreed digital means “the larger the choice, the bigger revenue, the happier the exhibitors.”

Jon Thompson, prexy of digital content digital distrib The Worx, felt content would drive the medium but lamented independents’ lack of access to screens, with “some (unnamed) people proposing projector distribution patterns that will keep the distributors’ stranglehold.”

Miramax prexy Mark Gill disagreed: “The money goes into the promotion. The game is the marketing.” That drew emphatic nods from satellite operator Eutelsat broadband topper Antonio Arcidiacono, who sees “cinemas becoming like newspaper kiosks — film anytime, anywhere. The infrastructure is there. We can start tomorrow morning but we need to agree a common standard.”

Not that Microsoft’s Gareth Sutcliffe was fazed: “For us it’s all bits and bytes so long as they’re secure.”

But with so many issues still outstanding, it’s not surprising there’s an exhib holdout; “theater owners are very late adopters,” said Gill.

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