06:24 PM

Coming Soon To A Theater Near You: Digital Movies

An organization of major Hollywood studios releases system requirements and specifications for building projectors capable of showing digital films, a milestone in the evolution to digital movie theaters.

The Digital Cinema Initiatives LLC, an organization comprised of major Hollywood studios, released on Wednesday system requirements and specifications for building projectors capable of showing digital films, a milestone in the evolution to digital movie theaters.

The technology specs were approved following three years of discussion among the studios, theater owners, equipment manufacturers and others. The agreement is a milestone in that it paves the way for studios to distribute movies electronically, rather than by the far more expensive process of shipping copies of 35mm films. In addition, digital movies would be easier to archive and stored without degradation.

The issue has been a contentious one, since digital movies would require theater owners, who are already suffering from low-ticket sales, to buy expensive equipment supporting the new format, which would support films with resolutions of 2,000 or 4,000 lines per screen. Traditional television is 480 lines.

For the studios, the concern has been in ensuring the inclusion of digital-rights technology in order to protect against piracy.

Walt Ordway, chief technology officer for DCI, declined to discuss the equipment-funding issue, but said more than half of the 160-page DCI-specification document is dedicated to digital rights management. Another major area is in visual quality, which surpasses that of the best high-definition televisions.

"If it's on the negative, it will be captured digitally and taken to the theater," Ordway said.

In November 2004, the board of the National Association of Theater Owners adopted a resolution that described the group's "fundamental objectives regarding the potential transition to digital cinema." Within that resolution, NATO called on the studios to fund a "universal financing plan" for theaters to make the transition.

In a joint release with the studios, NATO gave no indication whether that problem had been addressed, saying only that the latest agreement was "an important step toward making digital cinema a reality."

"With this piece now in place, we look forward to working with all the involved parties to achieve our mutual goal - bringing the best possible movie-going experience to the consumer," John Fithian, president of NATO, said.

The DCI said that the specifications would provide a "common ground" for manufacturers to build equipment and that competition would eventually lead to lower prices.

"As the market gets more competitive, the price of the equipment and its installation -- previously thought to be a major barrier to digital cinema -- will become increasingly affordable, to the point where that stumbling block should no longer be of consequence," Walt Ordway, chief technology officer for DCI, said in the joint statement.

DCI members, who include Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studio, hailed the approved specifications. Warner Bros. said it plans to start distributing films in both 35mm and digital format by the end of the year. No timetable was announced by the other studios.

Wide-scale distribution of digital movies, however, is a ways off, due to a number of hurdles that still have to be addressed, Ordway said. Besides coming up with reliable projectors that are affordable to theater owners, a certification process still has to be developed to show which manufacturers are selling equipment that follow DCI specifications and which do not.

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