Panel discusses quality, cost, standards

Digital cinema is moving along nicely, but two key questions remain: Who pays for the transition, and will there be a war over a standard format?

The majors’ Digital Cinema Initiative has yet to release its conclusions about standards. But at a Tuesday panel session, the Worx-Digital prez-CEO Jon Thompson said, “It would be a very big mistake to look for just one. I want to see one server which can play them all, open standards, otherwise you have a gatekeeper.”

“The studios tell me that’s the worst of all worlds,” countered Steven Bergman, director of strategic development and marketing at Boeing Digital Cinema. “With the DCI they want to set one universal standard. They want to have one inventory.”

The other big issue is whether exhibs or the studios should foot the bill.

Bergman said, “the studios are willing to invest if it is cash neutral for them.”

Dave Monk, VP of Texas Instruments Europe, said manufacturers are driven to lower the cost of projectors, server technology and system tools. For the industry, the savings come in distribution. He sees the need “to create studio-distributor-exhibitor-manufacturer packages,” spreading the technology with “integrated economic packages.”

Landmark Theaters exec VP Bert Manzari delivered an upbeat progress report on the U.S. circuit’s plans to upgrade all its screens to digital capability. With eight screens “equipped on a trial basis on the back of ‘Standing in the Shadow Of Motown,’ we’ve had an unsolicited positive response.” The specialty chain, dedicated to independent and foreign-lingo films has “very, very discerning viewers. You can’t do this piecemeal and we’re now making the jump.”

With the panel moderator, Variety managing editor of special reports Tom Tapp, playing devil’s advocate — “maybe digital won’t replace film” — Jim Steele, prexy of Digital Cinema Solutions, replied, “It’s already replaced everything in post-production. I don’t know anyone who cuts on film any longer. The sheer practicality will win out. It’s just a matter of when.”

Thompson thinks “film will remain the capture medium for a hundred years but the change will come in projection. Digital brings the opportunity to explore and expand in areas which previously cost millions to enter.”

Landmark’s Manzari said “Like Water For Chocolate” could have played beyond its 40 weeks if the prints hadn’t been “wrecked and the distributor didn’t want to order any new ones.”

Denis Kelly, digital cinema operations manager of Europe at Eastman Kodak, talked of “pockets of opportunity expanding. They’ll overlap and change the landscape. The Big Bang everyone talked about a year ago hasn’t happened, though.”

Steele found installation is “the enlightening experience. Just dealing with the sheer logistics has been difficult. There are still a lot of misconceptions and we’re happy at the moment to live alongside 35mm.”

Steele sold the benefits of digital for all. With files sitting on a PC-sized server “the whole process can stay digital. We’re no longer in a six-figure universe for setting these things up. Now it’s upgrade the software, not throw out the bathtub.”

Monk has “technology to make things more filmic. People are surprised by the vivid colors. The film is stable, doesn’t jump, scratch, bleach, leap, burn out, etc. To succeed the images have to look better than film.”

Another advantage of digital exhibition, said Monk, “is the ability to subtitle. You can switch them on and off or have multiple languages. It’s great for L.A.!” Exec agreed all current installations are “still trial but they’re all pretty damn successful. A full-scale roll out will bring mass benefits.”

Sesh, part of the Variety Conference series, was presented by the Maryland Film Office and sponsored by Boeing Digital Cinema.

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