Landmark going digital

All auditoriums nationwide to be outfitted with d-cinema

Arthouse giant Landmark Theaters will today announce plans to outfit its entire 177-screen circuit for digital cinema and a related effort to deal directly with filmmakers lacking distribution for their low-budget digital video features.

The d-cinema initiative involves a joint venture with Microsoft and L.A.-based Digital Cinema Solutions. Terms weren’t available, but it’s believed the unique three-way relationship will shave Landmark’s costs to a fraction of the usual $100,000-plus per screen to install most d-cinema systems.

All auditoriums in Landmark’s 53 theaters, located in 20 markets nationwide, will be outfitted with d-cinema playback systems based on Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 Series. DCS will select digital projectors from a variety of manufacturers.

The Windows Media systems are substantially less expensive than other systems, because they essentially represent off-the-shelf technology, officials said. The playback systems will be married to relatively inexpensive digital projectors, because the smaller size of its screens requires less illumination to project an image of acceptable resolution.

Landmark chief Paul Richardson said he doesn’t expect a lot of immediate interest from specialty distribs in converting their primary releases for digital distribution. But he believes they may be more inclined to acquire niche pics shot in digital video than previously.

“There’s a whole bunch of product that doesn’t get picked up at the film festivals because people don’t believe it’s worth the cost to invest the money to make a master print, which can cost $50,0000-$60,000,” Richardson said. “But for $6,000-$8,000, you can encode the film for digital (to) play our circuit, and I think some distributors will be interested in doing that.”

Landmark and its joint venture partners will also ante up the encoding costs for some number of pics, he said. “We’re not going to bid on films against the guys in the business,” the Landmark CEO said, noting he won’t be personally prowling any film markets.

“The films we’re going to package are maybe a year old and haven’t gotten picked up yet,” he explained. “Those people are in contact with us all the time.”

In the past, Landmark’s steered such filmmakers to various indie distribs but now will deal with them more directly in some instances. Richardson said he’s not sure how many such pics the joint venture partners themselves will distribute, nor have they identified a likely first release to run through the digital circuit.

“We’re starting out on an adventure here, and we really don’t have a road map,” he acknowledged. “We have a huge opportunity, but we’re just not exactly sure where that opportunity is going to evidence itself.”

Landmark aims to outfit all of its screens for digital projection by December. “We’re starting on the smaller auditoriums first, because that’s where these pictures will play,” Richardson said.

Landmark and Microsoft previously collaborated on a small number of digital installations in connection with the BMW Films digital shorts series. For that series, which features BMW autos in several digitally produced action shorts, DCS installed d-cinema systems in a couple dozen theaters, including several Landmark sites.

Landmark also used Microsoft-outfitted auditoriums to exhib Artisan’s recent music docu “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” in nine locations.

“Landmark Theaters’ commitment to specialty film and its established leadership in the independent exhibition space offers Microsoft the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to the independent film community,” Windows Digital Media division manager Dave Fester said.

“The independent film space has largely been ignored by digital cinema,” DCS prexy Jim Steele said. “The small, current base of digital cinema installations targets the largest screens and multiplexes focused on mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. The program (involving) Landmark and Microsoft will change all that, because it creates a nationwide network of independent digital cinemas.”

Peter Baxter, prexy of the successful Slamdance festival for fledgling filmmakers, said the new Landmark-Microsoft initiatives should go over big with his constituency.

“It strikes me as a big positive for emerging filmmakers,” Baxter said. “It’s a great opportunity for these kind of filmmakers to have their films seen with a bigger, wider audience and not just on the festival circuit.”

Many Slamdance entries lack film prints, and Baxter said he’d be happy to steer interested filmmakers to Landmark.

“Landmark’s mandate has always been to build an alternative infrastructure dedicated to the enhancement and proliferation of independent film,” Landmark exec VP Bert Manzari said. “We exhibit over 250 films a year, and all too many of these films succeed or fail due to market economics rather than artistic accomplishment.”

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