Monday, October 6, 2008

Back Up

The long-reported and slow-in-coming massive digital roll-out in actual movie theatres has moved one important step closer this month. Five Hollywood studios have agreed to help defray the costs of installing digital projectors in as many as 20,000 movie theatres across the nation in the next couple of years.

(Story as reported by LA Times is at,0,1993700.story, and also here.)

That's about half the screens out there. The costs will reach $1 billion. That's only one of the reasons that theatres weren't willing to jump from 35mm film to digital technology.

The studios love this. If 20,000 screens receive solely digital content, it can save the industry as much as $3 billion. A year. It costs money to make and ship all those prints of films. Especially when they only last in theatres a week or two.

A long time ago, before video, DVD, and the Internet, popular films would play a year or more in theatres. "Star Wars" in 1977 played an average of 10 months in theatres. "Revenge of the Sith," 30 years later, earned 75% of its $380m gross in 2 weeks, and was off 90% of its screens in 8 weeks.

The large theatre chains seem fine with all this - they'll receive a per-print fee of about $800 each to defray costs - presumably about as much as it costs the studios to develop, dupe, and ship a physical print the old-fashioned way.

This is a lie. It costs at least $3000 per print, by current insider estimates - the studios are short-changing the exhibitors.

(No word on how much it costs to create, duplicate, beam/upload, and manage a digital print, but presumably it's a lot cheaper. We "presume" only because there are no physical elements to create. The management of these prints will create new challenges however, as they are complicated digital assets that aren't created or behave like physical stable objects, including being more prone to electricity and magnetic fields, and allowing themselves to be duplicated for "free" if not properly protected.)

So the more digital you book the closer you are to paying for your d-projectors. And you won't have to pay that last 19-year-old kid to run the booth anymore, or make up and break down films. There won't be any more scratches on prints (assuming they last long enough to get scratched (and they do, they only takes one showing)). Suddenly the math makes sense; it's likely to create a large installed user base of digital projection within just a few years.

AMC, Regal, and Cinemark will leave the smaller chains in the dust, who won't have access to the digital content Hollywood wants to offer. And will exclusively, probably before long. The bigger productions will favor the large chains that can squeeze the largest grosses out of the prints. (Studios won't need to be as promiscuous with print runs and clearances to get high grosses as they have been in the last 20 years, although with digital duplicates being "infinitely" duplicatable they still can be... as long as they keep installing more d-projs.)

Studios will also have more control over each copy before, during and after playdates (Digital projectors can be individually addressed, and "prints" can be locked. They'll know if someone at the theatre scheduled an extra midnight show and collected money without reporting it to the studio).

(People don't copy 35mm prints (they'd need an optical printer, illustrated above), they just show them without telling the bosses (see a previous post, "Fin de Cine" here). This began happening approximately 1 week after projecting film was invented, in 1898. Lot of people got rich this way (including some of the future heads of what would be the Hollywood studios in the '10s and '20s - they all began in exhibition and opened movie studios later). Digital "control" means studios don't have to remain concerned about what happens to the old 35mm prints because they no longer have to track physical assets they can't exploit, and frankly don't want to be bothered with storing.)

Hacking and copying, which has already moved away from the theatre level and now lives within the studios, will move closer to rocket science. Studios in one single swoop are both attempting to bottle and tempting the illegal duplicates devil with one technological carrot.

One minor problem not addressed is the maintenance. What do you do when your $80k+ projector - which has no moving parts, has no user-accessible panels, has highly-proprietary soft- and hard-ware, and hasn't been street-tested over 100 years like 35mm projectors have - goes kaput? You call the $200-an-hour technician, that's what. This is problematic. These machines aren't fool-proof.

A major problem will be with history. In the past there were upwards of 1000 (if not 4000) stable 35mm prints that would ensure some level of redundancy when looking to revisit a recent film. Digital films are ephemeral - you can't put your hands on it and store it safely away. Like all sophisticated computer files, it must be continuously upgraded, tested, re-formatted and in general baby-sat over the course of its life. How will you watch Zemeckis's 3-D version of "Beowulf" (assuming you will want to) in 10 years? The equipment it was created for (and on) is already obsolete, and unless someone spends money to upconvert it, it will become as lost as that Wordstar document you wrote back in 2001.

This is not a robust technology, nor likely to be a legacy one. "Beowulf", as well as the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus 3-D concert film, "Best Of Both Worlds," are both important technological and historical chapters in the development of the new wave of digital exhibition. Yet they're already unavailable in the original format they were intended to be seen. (The blu-ray 3-d approximations are just that: approximations, technologically hobbled, and only emphasize the unexamined rush to overly baroque and expensive digital exhibition.)

Finally, the reliance on digital delivery will sacrifice timelessness for timeliness. Film, physical and stable, is transportable, over space and over time. Its standardization (as well as its high quality of image capture) is not something to be dismissed out of hand. Digital files are less flexible. The current "conversion" is gu-estimated to be paid for over 10 years. Do they really think the current digital standards and technology will stand still for that long?

Where will the next $10 billion come from when the current specs become obsolete? Oh, say, in about a year? I worked at an AMC with an obsolete digital projector that was only 16 months old sitting in the corner of the booth - the techs were taking pieces off it to jury-rig other newer projectors. A $100k+ boat anchor.

Which venues won't be updated and therefore obsolete, either "frozen" (doomed to show films produced before 2008) or unable to show anything (because they junked the 35mm projectors)? How many screens will close for lack of product?

What will audiences in the future support? What will be produced to take advantage of a new digital IMAX 3-D technological aesthetic? Which most agree is a technological fad itself?

Will it be able to watch it years later? In what form? A museum endowed with old 21st century "digital projection" machines, perhaps?

The exhibition film industry is going to be sorry for their short-sightedness. It won't last. There won't be any affordable back-ups.

What will be saved then?

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