Digital Cinema – An Update

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It is a couple of years since I wrote the previous essay on the future of cinema and projection, as well as the market report into the exhibition industry and so it is time for an update as there have been a number of develops.

Digital Cinema in terms of technology is very close to being right. 4K projectors and even 2K are showing pictures on the screen with depth, and colour which equals a film print, and when a 70mm print is shown on a 4K projector the picture is fantastic. I have seen a demonstration, which shows that the picture resolution of film, seen on the cinema screen is only about 1.2K as opposed to the 2K which, is now available through Digital projectors. It is important to remember that these are special cinema projectors and not just video projectors – as the picture quality between the two is somewhat different.

The benefits to using digital projectors are large, but so are the disadvantages. The really big selling point now that the technology is almost right, is the alternative content, which is possible to deliver on these huge screens. Already experiments have been taking place to see what the public’s reaction is to this sort of content. During the World Cup in 2002, some of the England games were projected in Odeon Leicester Square and a number of pop concerts have been screened at cinemas nation-wide. The other hope of the digital cinema is that it will allow short and art films a greater exposure across the country – several screenings of the same film can be screened across the country, usually the same publicity unlike currently where there are limited number of prints which have to travel across the country a screening at the time. And this is what the Film Council is planning to do with its virtual circuit, where it has secured money to install 150 digital projectors across the country.

So the technology is nearly ready, the studios are happy, the small filmmaker should be happy, so why hasn’t it become more wide spread use than it is? Well there are a number of factors here. Firstly there is the question of standards which are being worked on at the moment. Film has a set of standards, which means that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, if you have a 35mm print then it will work with the equipment and so will film from ten years ago. There are a variety of groups who are currently trying to work on this. Rights Management is an issue, which is made more complex now, the original material is in digital format, as it means that a perfect copy could be made and distributed if it fell into the wrong hands. This means that procedures and systems need to be installed into the whole chain from the studios, right the way through to the projection box and managers offices of cinemas. But there are a number of issues, which surround just this area, including who has access and control to which bit of the system, how the information is collected, i.e. pre or post screening, and many others.

One of the other factors is still cost, although the price of the digital projectors have fallen in the last few years they are still three times more expensive than there film cousins and until the price drops they wouldn’t be installed widely, but of course like any supply and demand, until more digital projectors are installed the price of them won’t come down.

The whole fear of having to upgrade these expensive digital projectors is another problem. It is generally excepted that computer equipment has to be upgraded every three to four years, but they cost less than a tenth of the price of the digital projectors, and parts can be upgraded to help cut the costs. At the moment film projectors can run for the whole lifetime of the cinema they are installed in with little worry. And there is the danger that if a cinema doesn’t upgrade there digital projectors they could find they aren’t allowed certain new films because of the technical specifications stipulated.

However HD technology is proving equipment and images which are of an equal picture to 35mm with less cost.

The UK premiere for the film Pirates of the Caribbean is apparently going to be shown in digital with the film being delivered on small DAT sized tapes. In the long term when all the cinemas in a multiplex it will be very simple to move a print from one screen to another – in fact easier than it currently is, but in the interim when not all screens maybe digital there will be a problem.

I think that it is unlikely that film will disappear from out screens and cinemas completely for a long time. There are too many things, which are in its favour, but there are also too many things, which are in favour of digital projection for it just to disappear like many other similar technologies. Digital projectors are definitely here to stay, but I think it is likely that it will be mainly the arts cinemas, which will have them, installed, rather than the high street cinema. Why? Art house cinemas have the most to gain and to offer from the technology. The promise of alternative content means that there is the potential for the venues to offer a greater and more varied programme of events. Many arts cinemas also include bars, restaurants, and meeting rooms, which means that they can be utilised as conference venues far more than a multiplex. Art houses films are released in lower numbers of prints and also show older prints, both of which would gain a likely increase in the audience as a result of a wider promotion. Interestingly most people who vote on the web site poll feel it will be 6-10 years before digital projectors are commonplace in cinemas. We will see.