Thursday, March 20, 2008

ShoWest: Go Digital.

The first step into three dimensions for movie theaters is digital, and ShoWest, the industry insider's annual trade show for Cinema Exhibition and Distribution, this year became a showcase for studios, theater owners and technology companies, to broker landmark deals to begin the largest initiative to convert existing theaters to digital technology to date. If you're just a casual movie fan you're likely about to stop reading, a "big whoop" speeding to the front of your thoughts. But wait, this is a "big whoop" and you're going to be the recipient, first hand, of a little good news/bad news if you're planning to spend anytime at all in a movie theater over the next couple of years.

First, a first hand impression of the significance of sitting your butt down in digitally equipped verses analog (read old fashion projector and film reels, sprockets and celluloid being pulled past a really bright lamp) theater... it's really good. Of course, that goes along with the quality of the film you've elected to sit through, but the fact is, digital projection has the ability to put a cleaner, defect free, brilliant image onto the screen and though you'll come to accept it as ordinary, the first few times you'll be noticing the things you notice on your neighbor's HD flatscreen.

My first experience watching a digital movie print came some time ago when I had the opportunity to see Disney's animated Tarzan in a Texas Instruments test equipped theater at AMC's Pleasure Island complex at Walt Disney World. Having seen the film projected with standard analog equipment a week earlier, I wondered if I would notice any real or significant difference. As the opening frames bathed the screen, there was a noticeable breath from the audience. Not a gasp, but a certain appreciation and recognition of the vibrancy of the colors and detail in the image. Throughout the screening, the clean, crystal clear brilliance of the pictures made for a more enjoyable experience than the first screening I saw and set the bar at a level I hadn't imagined possible in movie theaters previously. Since then, I have often been appalled at the poor quality of movie prints I've paid full price to see. Most recently, at a screening of No Country For Old Men, the print was as scratched and dull as the Texas landscape the film was shot in. A major disappointment that may soon be going the way of VCR tapes.

So there's the first reason you should care. ShoWest, just wrapping up a few days ago, became the platform for a series of announcements that will wind up committing companies and dollars to retrofitting as many as 10,000 theater screens to digital capability. (And you thought that new home theater would keep you're kids home on the weekends.) The work has already begun and finding digital screens bowing in your neighborhood will definitely be in your future. It also means that studios from Disney to Universal will be flooding the market with digital content, which makes your days of watching defective film prints happily numbered.

But is this really something to get fired up about? Can you say 3D? You know how we go on and on about 3D on these pages. The fact is, theaters need to say digital before they can say 3D, and once the first conversion is complete, the 3D conversion can begin. And there's a ton of news about 3D coming up in our next column.

But hey, wasn't there something about "bad news" in there? Let me put it this way... Jeffrey Katzenberg, the animation guru of Dreamworks and perhaps the industry's biggest cheerleader for the future of 3D, while addressing ShoWest, said this about the digital delivery of movies to theaters: "It is nothing less than the greatest innovation that has happened for all of us in the movie business since the advent of color 70 years ago". Statements like that don't get made over technology that comes cheap. Estimates indicate there are some 1.1 billion dollars poised to finance this first wave of the new era in movie theater entertainment experience. Might as well start prepping yourself now for a little box-office ticket price shock. Keep your fingers crossed, maybe they'll improve the popcorn while they're at it.

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