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Will H’w’d freak at endless tweaks?

Last-minute digital pic fixes: Helmers happy, studios stew

The digital revolution will change everything, we’ve been told.

The cost of moviemaking will be reduced, enabling new talent to strut its stuff. Directors will require less in the way of equipment and smaller crews.

Except it may not be working out that way.

A case in point: digital exhibition.

Here’s the way it worked out for George Lucas. The film prints of “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” were already being made, but Lucas wasn’t happy with the way some of the shots turned out.

So he did what any director wishes he could do: Lucas fixed them.

Actually, the director ended up tweaking more than 70 shots that appear in the version of the sci-fi saga that was digitally projected in theaters, including the addition of a more affectionate exchange to the pic’s final wedding scene.

And he did it only days before it was released to theaters.

Thanks to Hollywood’s imminent adoption of digital cinema, Lucas is the first of many filmmakers who are expected to take advantage of the ability to perfect their projects not just days, hours or minutes before their pics bow, but also well after they hit theater screens.

The major studios are about to realize that while instantly sending a film to a theater at the press of a button will eliminate millions in film processing costs, it’s also about to create productions that never end.

Filmmakers who want to push the digital envelope could end up eliminating any cost savings.

Here’s why:

  • Inserting new shots into a film would require not only some of the pic’s cast to return, but also unionized crew to shoot the new images and edit them into the pic.

  • Cleaning up f/x shots would require members of a pic’s f/x talent to remain assembled and tied up at facilities, creating a strain for the shops who want to move the costly CG artists onto new projects, while trying to satisfy its previous client.

  • Certain edits might even trigger a domino effect of other changes to be made, such as new sound mixes or new scores to be recorded.

In the end, “simple” changes could cost anywhere from the tens of thousands to millions of dollars, post pros say.

So are post production toppers reaching for their secret bottle of Wild Turkey in the drawer? Not quite.

This is because digital distribbing has arrived not in a dramatic bolt of lightning but by UPS. One post production topper at a major studio explained that digital “prints” must be stored on individual hard drives, then packed into boxes and shipped by the same slow, analog route that film cans are.

Worse, filmmakers like Lucas are the exception. There aren’t too many helmers who wield as much power over their productions as he does, or who own the post production facilities that work on their pics.

Industryites also add that there are enough A-listers with final-cut power, including James Cameron, Michael Mann, Robert Zemeckis, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, who would relish more time to tweak their pics simply because they can, but that many of the cinematographers who work with established directors are wary of, or outright hostile to, digital lensing.

And while younger helmers like Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, Stephen Sommers and the Wachowski Brothers might be more likely to take advantage of the chance, given their knowledge of and experience with emerging technologies, many at the studios who pay for their movies are twitchy about digital.

“So many producers and directors of photography are afraid of using digital, because they think: We’ve got this $20 million star on set, and we won’t be able to light him the way we want,” explained one studio post production topper, “So there’s strong resistance to using digital due to the ‘fear factor.’ ”

While independent digitally shot films have made a splash in the last few years, the studios are taking it slower. Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” proved disappointing, but Miramax will soon try its luck with Steven Soderbergh’s “Full Frontal” starring Julia Roberts.

But shooting a personal auteur project is one thing; utilizing the still tiny-digital exhibition network is another entirely. The 60 or so digital projectors in the country that unspooled “Attack of the Clones” will soon go begging for a film to project.

So while it won’t come cheap, digital projection seems in a galaxy far, far away.

That will give legal teams at the studios time to come up with new do’s and don’ts for directors for the future. And while the Directors Guild of America says that “our contract empowers our directors but doesn’t limit them in any way,” actual guidelines stipulate that helmers are entitled to the first cut, with a pic’s producer getting the power of final cut.

If later, a producer decides to alter a film, contractually, they must inform the director.

Considering that most big- budget pics list five or more producers in their credits (“K-19: The Widowmaker” has 20), the chance that every producer will unanimously agree to the same changes probably won’t happen.

For now at least, time is on the studios’ side.

(Claude Brodesser contributed to this report.)

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