Studios near D-Day

Group to fund digital cinema work, tap chief

HOLLYWOOD — A studio consortium that has been meeting to discuss digital cinema is within a few days of announcing a pact to fund joint work on the issue, and a neutral exec will be appointed soon afterward to manage the venture.

“In order to get this going, everybody involved will have to throw in a few million dollars,” Warner Bros. distrib prexy Dan Fellman said Monday. “Everybody is willing to do that, and now we have to find an executive to run the thing.”

A discussion of several candidates is already afoot, insiders said. Consortium members are hoping to secure a manager who understands distribution and exhibition, as well as the fledgling technology involved in d-cinema.

All Hollywood majors have been sending reps to the consortium’s regular meetings, which have been convened about once a month for the past year. Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony are considered the most bullish on pushing the spread of digital cinema.

Hashing out specifics

Preliminary discussions have been held on topics such as engineering standards for d-cinema and how to finance the rollout of digital projection equipment and distrib infrastructure.

But progress has been slow as studio attorneys simultaneously sorted out whether their ad hoc collaborations could be construed as unlawful collusion. That issue has been resolved with the planned hiring of a manager unattached to any one studio — a move considered vital to avoiding legal questions.

Regulators aside, there are three groups with varying perspectives on d-cinema — distribs, exhibs and vendors.

The last of those want to rush things along posthaste: They can’t sell their digital widgets until a marketplace is created. Exhibs are the most cautious, seeing only the related costs and little potential gain.

Distribs are caught in the middle, hoping to cut distribution costs via d-cinema but fretful over lingering technical issues. Particularly enthusiastic are studios whose corporate parents believe that d-cinema fits well with their entertainment-tech tilt.

“We thought that if we left it up to the exhibitor it would never happen,” Warners’ Fellman said.

Standard approach

The consortium’s most pressing priority is getting Hollywood engineers to formulate a uniform code of d-cinema standards so equipment manufactured by disparate vendors is interchangeable. Execs hope to avoid the situation that has arisen with digital sound in which distribs and exhibs cope with three competing formats.

But perhaps the biggest bugaboo has been d-cinema financing. Exhibs are cash poor and unmotivated to shell out dollar one, and even vendors have been hesitant to seed the market in any significant way until a broader industry embrace creates real profit opportunities.

So, distribs appear increasingly poised to lend a hand, if only as a facilitator of funding schemes. Still, the devil’s in the details, and it is hoped that a consortium manager can sort through members’ various proposals and arrive at a consensus.

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