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Movie Theaters to Go Digital... Slowly - 2004-07-07

Digital cameras, MP3 players, DVDs? it seems everyone is jumping on the digital bandwagon these days. Everyone, that is, except local movie theaters. Why haven't they joined the digital crowd? Reporter Dave Adox visited his local cinema to find out.

Charlie Hirschman sits in the projection room at the Loews Cinema in New York City's Times Square. His work begins when a truck drops off metal film cases at the theater's back door.

"They come in 2000 foot [610 meter] reels, an average film could be from four reels to 10 reels, " he notes.

He splices all those reels together to make one continuous roll of film, then it's placed on a large platter which spins as the movie travels through the projector.

It's been basically the same process since Mr. Hirschman started working as a projectionist 35 years ago, but it may be about to change. John Fithian is president of the American Theater Owners Association.

"Digital projection will constitute the biggest technological transition in the history of movie theaters, perhaps only rivaled by the advent of sound," he says. "Digital technology will affect every part of the movie process, filming, which will be kind of oxymoronic, shooting a picture on digital, editing it digitally, distributing it, and exhibiting, all on digital, will make the process more efficient and save time."

Instead of getting movies delivered by truck, theaters will download the features over the Internet or via satellite. That will eliminate the cost of film prints, which run about $1200 each. Scrapping prints will save studios about one-and-a-half billion dollars a year. But the new technology won't save theater owners any money, not with a digital projector costing up to $150,000, which is five times the cost of a film projector.

"Well, the reality is, theater owners can't and won't pay for the transition to digital cinema," adds Mr. Fithian.

Mr. Fithian says that theater owners can't sell enough tickets to cover that cost, but they might not have a choice. According to Charles Swartz, director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, movie fans, who are getting used to high quality DVD pictures and sound at home, are pushing for the switch.

"Movie theaters owners are aware that they need to exceed current presentation quality if they are going to continue to offer moviegoers good reasons to continue coming to the theater," he explains.

King Arthur, I Robot and Catwoman are some of the films that will be released digitally this summer. With only 90 digital screens out of 35,000 in the country, most Americans won't notice. That's all right with Charlie Hirschman. He's glad the switch is happening slowly, so he can stick with film for a few more years until he retires.