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Movie theaters going digital

Report: Number of theaters showing digital flicks expected to double

Report: Number of theaters showing digital flicks expected to double

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LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Grab the popcorn, cinemaphiles. You may be about to sit through one of the best movie sequels in years: digital cinema.

"The digital image is brighter, sharper, the colors are more crisp and the image is a bit steadier," says Patrick von Sychowski, an analyst with Screen Digest, the British-based media research firm.

After years of Hollywood hype, 2004 could truly be a watershed year for digital cinema. A recent surge in investment by theater chains and technology companies means the number of digital projectors in cinemas will more than double to over 400 in the next 12 months, Screen Digest reports.

There's no guarantee the technology will make the next Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck film more watchable, but at least the final product will look better.

As always, whenever art and technology collide, snags emerge. Installation costs for cinemas are high and the major studios are slow to churn out fully digitized blockbusters until technology standards and anti-piracy measures are resolved.

But cinema operators, eager to show off their new digital projectors to the public, aren't waiting for Hollywood. A host of European chains have begun to show digitized rock concerts, documentaries and features from independent filmmakers.

"The new technology, we see, gives the local filmmaker the chance to exhibit to a bigger audience. Those films that do not get a chance under the 35-millimeter distribution model, will get a fresh chance," said Steve Perrin, deputy head of distribution and exhibition of the UK Film Council.

The film council has committed some $39 million (20 million pounds) to pay for the roll-out of 250 digital screens across Britain by 2005.

Blockbuster on demand

Since the mid-1990s, champions of digital cinematography such as George Lucas and Steven Soderbergh have hailed it as a triumph over the 19th Century breakthrough of celluloid film.

Stored as a digitized image file, the technology offers a better medium to enhance special effects, and playback quality will not deteriorate over time.

A digital film can be beamed to theaters via satellite, optical discs or fiber optic networks, potentially eliminating that exasperating several-month lag overseas viewers must endure for a big Hollywood production. And subtitles can be swapped in and out minutes before show time.

At the theater, a digital film is stored on a computer server connected to a digital projector. The projector is equipped with a state-of-the-art computer chip that cleans up the image -- capable of showing 35 trillion color variations.

Since the Lumiere brothers and D.W. Griffiths pioneered the medium 100 years ago, filmmakers have had to live with the reality of scratches and hairs marring some frames, and hisses and pops distorting the sound.

Digital cinematography promises to remove these headaches. What you will get is ear-popping digital surround sound and crisp images. "It's great for your standard Bollywood song and dance," von Sychowski said.

It's not surprising then that India has embarked on one of the most ambitious digital cinema investment programs. Mukta Adlabs Digital Exhibition Limited and Hong Kong-based Global Digital Creations Holdings Limited this year have teamed to wire up an average of 20 Indian cinemas per month.

New investment is also under way in China, Britain and Sweden, making it likely that Europe and Asia will quickly surpass the United States -- the early digital cinema pioneer -- as the new world capitals.

Rewriting the Hollywood script

The biggest advantage for the movie goer, says Peter Wester, project manager for Swedish cinema chain Folkets Hus och Parker, will be most visible not on the marquee -- not necessarily the screen.

A cinema can download a digital version of the film on a computer hard drive and show it as long as the audience shows up. No longer are theaters bound to the major studios' distribution schedule, he said.

"The average rise of income for us is 25 percent after one year," he added.

It can cost thousands of dollars for a cinema to get a Hollywood blockbuster film at or near the release date. A theater operator, therefore, often has little choice but to show the movie as often as possible before returning it to the distributor.

A digital version, because it can be easily reproduced, shipped and stored, costs less than $20 per copy, according to cinema exhibitors. It also allows the cinema operator to free up their viewing schedule, perhaps opening up the odd week-night slot for an art-house title.

And, the build-out is expensive. It costs a cinema operator an estimated $125,000 for the equipment and installation of a digital projector and server. The costs are decreasing, with widespread roll-out expected to halve deployment cost.

The biggest obstacle though is Hollywood. The Walt Disney Co., through its partnership with Pixar Animation Studios Inc., and Warner Bros., are the only studios producing blockbusters in digital film.

The Disney-Pixar film "Finding Nemo" and Warner Bros. "The Last Samurai" were two of a handful of big digital releases this year. (Warner Bros. is a division of CNN's parent company Time Warner Inc.)

"That's the big unknown," von Sychowski said. "It's a matter of how much will the major studios commit to this."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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