Audience members at the Loews Route 4 cineplex in Paramus, N.J., shouldn’t notice anything unusual about The Phantom Menace on June 18. And that, in itself, is remarkable: For the first time, a major movie will be projected not from celluloid but as an all-digital file, delivered by a hard-disc-based server to four theaters in New Jersey and California and beamed to the screen using 3.9 million micro mirrors. It’s a revolutionary shift in the way films are shown and distributed — and the first major advance in a system that has changed about as much as Raisinettes in the last 50 years.
E-cinema has some obvious advantages: Not only will every movie in theaters be an exact duplicate of the studio original, but it’ll never get dirty, scratched, or faded. ”A chemical print is like being in the dark ages,” says George Lucas, who hopes to film and distribute Episode II digitally. ”To be able to stay in the digital medium once I’ve started there will be a big boon for me.” Getting rid of film is also a giant money saver: Instead of paying about $1,500 for each of the nearly 5,000 prints distributed for a Menace-size blockbuster — then shelling out thousands more to deliver the bulky six-reel package to theaters — a studio could send a digital movie to unlimited locations for the cost of a fiber-optic or satellite feed.
”The studios have a potential gross savings of about $600 million a year, just domestically, if they don’t have to create prints,” says William Kartozian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. His members like electronic cinema because it would enable them to juggle films with the click of a mouse. A screen used for Tarzan by day could be swapped for an added showing of Austin Powers at night — and the soundtrack could be switched to Spanish in the process. A digital feed could also help theaters draw a premium-paying crowd for live sports events or a Rolling Stones concert shown in high definition with THX sound.
But theater owners are also one of the new format’s biggest stumbling blocks. Turning today’s multiplex into an electronic cinema could cost up to $150,000 for each screen, and owners don’t want to pay for the upgrade, much less confront the projectionists’ union about who’s going to run the new gadgets. ”Since the savings are going to accrue to the studios, the exhibitors are going to expect them to fund the cost of conversion,” says Kartozian. The studios, however, have their own problems with e-cinema — piracy being among the biggest. The Wisconsin guys who stuffed a Phantom Menace reel into their car are comical compared with the techno-dweeb who could hack into a cineplex computer and put five flawless copies of the movie onto his website.
While exhibitors and studio suits scratch their heads, expect more digital-projection experiments from indie filmmakers, who see the low cost of e-cinema as a kind of Holy Grail. In May, two feature-length murder mysteries, Dead Broke, starring Paul Sorvino, and The Last Broadcast, held digital demos in New York — both of which, unfortunately, suffered show-stopping computer glitches. To avoid similar problems, technology developer Texas Instruments is supplying two of the four theaters showing the electronic Phantom with Jedi technicians. Who knows? Maybe one of them will even have the skill to delete Jar Jar from the movie.
(Additional reporting by Steve Daly and Gillian Flynn)