Unfulfilled promises don’t slow rollout

Digital cinema hasn't proved as transformative as many had hoped

Over the years, digital cinema has been promised as the cure for everything that ails the film business.

Lower costs, higher picture quality and complete antipiracy protection were all mentioned as benefits of d-cinema as proponents discussed it endlessly in the years leading up to its rollout, which is finally starting this year.

But as it turns out, d-cinema costs more in the short run, isn’t better-looking enough for most consumers to notice and doesn’t yet offer any protection against camcording, the main way movies are pirated while in the theatrical window.

On all three counts, technology hasn’t proved as transformative as many had hoped, for a variety of reasons:

  • While the actual cost of producing and distributing a digital movie file is much cheaper than film, studios are paying d-cinema integrators such as Christie/ AIX and Technicolor about the same cost they pay for film. Why? Because the difference is being used to fund the costly deployment of d-cinema systems, which are around $100,000 per screen. Initial contracts last a full decade, meaning studios won’t start seeing the savings until 2016. “It’s definitely a much longer-term payback than what was originally touted,” admits Glenn Kennel, director of DLP Cinema technology development for Texas Instruments.

  • Digital cinema does look better, if it’s compared with a several-week-old film print. But industryites admit that unless they’re watching content shot natively in HD, most moviegoers are likely to think they’re watching a fresh film print. That’s better for theaters than showing degraded film four weeks into a pic’s run, of course, but it’s hardly likely to wow audiences.

    Even Sony’s top-quality 4K projectors failed to impress many attendees at the recent ShoWest confab, when the electronics company showed a clip from “Batman Begins” at a presentation. Panelists said the difference might be evident from certain parts of the theater. But from center middle, it simply looked like pristine film.

  • Studios spent the last year of work on the Digital Cinema Initiative spec almost exclusively on security, but weren’t able to find a technology that could stop camcorders from getting a usable copy without interfering with what moviegoers see. While work continues and insiders say such technology could launch soon, for now, most digital prints cam be camcorded just as easily as film.

    But even though digital cinema has failed to live up to its promise on several fronts, rollout is accelerating. Insiders say there are three main selling points that appeal to theaters considering signing up:

  • Backend management. Working with a single server, theaters can instantly project a film on one or three or 10 screens, depending on demand. With film, you need multiple prints to start mutiple screenings at the same time. “Not only is it much easier to manage from a staffing perspective, but you can respond almost instantly to consumer demand,” notes Kurt Schwenk, general manager of NEC’s d-cinema division.

  • In an unexpected turn of events, digital cinema has enabled a new generation of 3-D technology. And after seeing increased returns for Disney’s limited run of “Chicken Little” in digital 3-D, many more exhibs want in. Not only does it draw more auds, but on “Chicken Little,” theaters were able to charge a premium for the 3-D experience.

    “I’m not sure people were even aware we could do this before people like James Cameron and the folks at ILM pointed out that it was possible,” recalls Kennell. “It didn’t come from the studios and wasn’t part of the DCI spec, but it’s a great extension we got from the creative community.”

  • Digital may not necessarily look better, but it sure sounds better — in an ad campaign. Exhibs are excited about the potential of marketing the digital cinema experience, especially if they are the first in their community to offer it. “We have been putting the message out there that our films are ‘all digital,’ and people really respond to that, even if they don’t know exactly what it means,” says Alan Grossberg, president of San Diego-based UltraStar Cinemas, the first chain in the nation to go all digital. “Anything that gets attention and helps people view the theatrical experience as superior to other options is a positive thing.”