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HP-Warner Deal Continues Hollywood's March Toward Digital

The two will partner to develop techniques for digitizing and restoring movies and TV shows.
Hewlett-Packard said Monday it has entered a partnership with Warner Bros. Studios to develop techniques for digitizing and restoring classic motion pictures and television shows.

It's the latest example of Hollywood's slow march to digital technology for post-production work in filmmaking. Movie studios regularly use digital technology to add special effects to adventure and fantasy films.

In addition to Warner, HP also said at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas that its hosted service for providing computer power to animation studios was tapped by DreamWorks in the making of "Shrek 2," which is scheduled for release May 21.

Hollywood, which has always had a love-hate relationship with new technology that threatens established business models, has moved faster in tapping digital software in post-production work than in actual filmmaking and in distribution.

The HP-Warner deal is an obvious benefit to the studio, because technology provides a better and cheaper method for restoring and keeping film classics. Digital versions don't deteriorate like analog video, which has a shelf life for about 20 years. In addition, storing a movie or TV show on a hard drive is cheaper than doing it in film canisters.

There's also the advantage of being able to copy digitized entertainment on DVD to sell or rent to consumers.

"It's pretty much in everyone's best interest to digitize old libraries," Yankee Group analyst Adi Kishore said.

The studio plans to use HP servers, software, and storage technologies to increase the number of films restored and released per year. The companies plan to work together to develop and deploy new techniques for restoring film and video and to jointly promote the technology. The partnership also includes embarking on a pilot project to create a digital post-production studio.

In the DreamWorks deal, HP said the animation studio is using its Utility Rendering Service in the making of "Shrek 2" and other feature films, including "Shark Tale" and "Madagascar." Utility Rendering Service, built by HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., is a 1,000-processor computer farm built on HP ProLiant DL360 servers running Linux and HP ProCurve network switches. By tapping into the network, DreamWorks can use the computing power for digital rendering on an as-needed basis. Rendering adds color, texture, lighting, and special effects to 3D character models and scenes.

HP has worked with DreamWorks since 2001.

Despite the HP announcements, a lot of work still needs to be done before digital technology unseats 35-millimeter filmmaking. The biggest hurdle today is the absence of common standards for file formats, compression technology, encryption, color-coding, and screen resolution. The two bodies most active in producing those standards are the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and the Digital Cinema Initiative.

"That's the root of what's holding up the industry," Kishore said. "It's an industry that's waiting for standards to evolve."

Digital rights management is another big stumbling block. Standards are still under development for protecting studios against illegal copying and distribution of digital films.

Nevertheless, digital filmmaking has its champions in the industry, including directors George Lucas and Steven Soderbergh, as well as the many independent filmmakers able to make a movie at a fraction of the cost of major studios.

Progress is being made in the distribution side. Screen Digest, a British media-research firm, predicts that the number of digital projectors in cinemas will more than double to more than 400 this year.

Among the biggest obstacles to digital distribution is the cost to a cinema operator. The price for a digital projector and server, including installation, is about $125,000. In addition, with the exception of Disney through its partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, and Warner, no other studios are making blockbusters in digital form.