Monday, May 5, 2008

Your Fog, Your Amphetamine, and Your Pearls

Late last month, Jeffrey Katzenberg during a Dreamworks earnings call bemoaned the slow roll out of digital screens in US.

(Article here:

The digital revolution, as it relates to delivering true bit-based entertainment in movie theatres instead of boring old chemical-and-plastic-based 35mm films, has threatened to take over film as early as 1999, when Lucas produced (and tried to release) “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” completely digitally. Anyone remember seeing that projected from a digital print? How 'bout those grays, huh?

I understand why Katzenberg, in charge of Dreamworks and specifically Dreamworks Animation, would be intensely interested in the digital roll out. Film prints cost upwards of $4000- $6000 apiece to create, and being able to deliver digitally (presumably on a hard drive or through download onto servers at the theatres) would save untold millions of dollars per release. (Over 80% of all animated films in the next 5 years are slated to have digital “prints” available). This is assuming the infrastructure is installed and working on the theatre level.

I think the real impetus for this announcement is Dreamworks' upcoming 3-d CGI cartoon, “Monsters vs. Aliens” can't be rolled out successfully with only 1000 digital venues nationwide. Dreamworks requests... - or demands - closer to 5000 (see above article). The film has been pushed back 2 years, waiting for digital to be officially named the winner in this war. Of course, they've also bought more time to work on it. It's also possible it's not very good, and only the digital 3-d bells-and-whistles will convince people to go see it. The new 3-d technology and marketing is still in its infancy (yes, you heard that right). The surprisingly healthy grosses for the 3-d prints of 2006's otherwise lackluster “Meet The Robinsons” encouraged many studios to explore this possibly lucrative niche revenue stream while the grosses on 2007's 3-d “Beowulf” dampened that enthusiasm somewhat.

Jim Cameron's “Avatar” has met a similar fate. This long-in-the making “ground-breaking” digital 3-d amusement park ride has had a drifting release date that has currently landed on December 2009. Cameron needed the technology of exhibition to “do the release justice,” and I presume he intends to get it. Cameron conducted an interview with Variety

(read here:

in which he cheerleads about the digital future, in which any number of standards and frame rates are possible in the digital magic lantern theatre of the future - and Cameron and other forward-thinking filmmakers can make whatever the hell technological breakthrough he wants. Like all we'll have to do is push a button on the console at the theatres (assuming theatres still exist by then) and it unspools (or would that be "streams"?).

This is not realistic. Besides the fact that it disregards something called “standards,” in which technology is developed paralytically to be the most economical, efficient, and reliable in equal (or at least acceptable) measures, to benefit from the economies of scale engendered by a confident and measurable marketplace, it doesn't take into account the realities present on the exhibition level. In other words, in the booths of the movie theatres themselves.

I've worked in movie theatres for almost 20 years now, and there are 3 reasons why digital isn't going to gain traction under the current paradigm:

1) it's too expensive. It's too expensive to install. Each of these projectors are going for over $100,000 per screen. And that's just the hardware - support not included. How long would it take to pay off that investment, when all the gross from "Beowulf" is already not enough to pay off its production costs? As the Katzenberg article says, the cinema companies are looking for a $1.1 billion loan to pay for a wide roll-out. Hell, you can fund a war in Iraq for one day with that kind of money.

It's also too expensive to manage. These things aren't sewing machines. A recent test in Dallas had a small battalion of IT managers, encryption and 3-d experts, and other engineers trouble-shooting this sophisticated technology, all getting $100 an hour. Movie theatres nowadays don't have crusty old union projectionists who have been working since the Doris Day days - projectors are run by 19-year-old "assistant managers" getting an extra quarter an hour to thread film on automated platters that are for the most part foolproof. This technology works, and it has for almost 100 years. 99% of all theatres use it - it's what you call an installed user base. It's not going anywhere.

2) it's unreliable. Ever had your computer crash for no reason, and all you could do was reboot it? That's what happens when your digital projector decides it's not going to show "Star Wars Part 7" tonight at 8 pm. Ever seen a digital film skip - or freeze? That doesn't happen with regular 35mm film. Film's a strip of celluloid, and if it breaks, you slap a piece of tape on it and it runs in front of the big bright light and shines onto the white wall in front of the theatre. If a computer decides it's not going to show the movie tonight, it's not going to show the movie tonight. Period. No amount of splicing tape will change that.

There's something to be said for analog.

3) It doesn't look as good. That's right, in spite of the hype, digital still can't get the dark, dreamy, and "flickery" look of film that we've grown to love and respond to in an instinctual, almost fugue-like manner. The blacks aren't black, they're a little gray. And the whites aren't white - they're gray as well. "Truth at 24 frames a second" Godard said. It turns out it's more evocative, an abstract and powerful visual hypnotizing seducer of narrative force, than 30 frames, or as Mr. Cameron would have it - 48 or more per second, could capture, even though clearer a reality. Cameron says it's really "lies at 24 frames a second." Right. You make your movie, I'll make mine.

Alright, there's 4 reasons. Note that none of the discussions about digital cinema mentions the content - how any of this will in any way improve the quality of the films being produced. Are we missing the whole point here or what?


Uncle Chumley said...

A good read.

The growing number of digital flicks, from "Beowulf" (in surprisingly stunning 3-D costing a Gazzilion dollars and a technical cast of thousands) - to "Iraq in Fragments" (a guerilla piece made by one guy with a $3500 camera and tapes that cost $5 a piece) tell us that there’s a there there and that it isn't going away. Both films look great and each pushes the technical envelop in a wildly different way.

Documentarians like James Longley and more and more (truly) independent narrative moviemakers will be telling their stories in the best way they can afford. Cameron, Lucas, and Zemeckis’s pyrotechnics will somehow have whiz-bang projectors rolled into a lot more theatres in the next five to ten years. The content will, as always, be a mixed bag with a few at the top, more than a few at the bottom, and most in between.

I think you’re right about 35mm not going away any time soon, and imagine it will be around in one way or another for a good, long time.

Roger Leatherwood said...

Thanks for the comment. The beauty of the digital movement is that it will allow others to gain access who didn't have it before.

And I expect some theatres/venues to exploit that hunger for that content in the near future.