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October 27, 2005

More on Digital Movie Theaters

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's been talked about for years, and now it looks like ... Well, like it's going to be talked about for a few more years.

Movie studios want movie theaters to convert from film-based projection to digital-based projection. From the studios' point of view, computer projection has many advantages. Distributing films would become far cheaper and easier. A physical print of a film weighs about 175 pounds and has to be shipped from the lab to a movie theater. Moving a digital file from one hard drive to another hard drive is much more easily and inexpensively accomplished. And storing films on computers would enable studios and theaters to respond more effectively to market developments. If a film tanks, it could be pulled instantly. A surprise hit could be moved onto multiple screens with a few mouse clicks.

Hard drives are now up to the task ... Digital projectors are better than they once were ... But digital theaters are still few and far between. Why?

The answer is a question: Who's going to pay to convert the movie theaters? A traditional film projector costs around $20,000. Converting a movie theater to digital projection costs around $100,000. Why should movie theaters volunteer to make investments that will mainly benefit the studios?

The Wall Street Journal's Sarah McBride reports that discussions between studios and theater chains continue, and continue, and continue continuing. Her article -- not online, as far as I can tell -- is full of interesting tidbits. One movie-chain source maintains that the conversion to digital won't occur until prices come much further down -- which he says will take another three years. Improvements in digital projection technology are another hangup. At the moment, hard-drive-based theater projectors can manage 2000 horizontal lines. But machines capable of projecting 4000 lines are soon to go on sale. Why should theater owners be expected to invest in a technology that's guaranteed to go obsolete?

But my favorite details from McBride's piece are a couple that remind me of what it's like being a day-to-day computer user:

  • While traditional movie projectors can last for decades, the computers that store and distribute digital movies will probably last no longer than three years.

  • A traditional movie projector typically needs around $1000 worth of maintenance per year. Digital projectors? McBride writes that they're "likely to bring maintenance costs of several thousand dollars per year because, like computers, they may develop glitches that require an expert to fix." As far as I can tell, what McBride means is that the local multiplex will soon be supporting its own IT department.

What McBride doesn't mention -- and what few articles about converting movies to digital seldom mention -- is the question of visual quality. I've searched out theaters that are equipped to project movies digitally, and I've watched a half dozen movies in them. It's a strange experience. Movies projected digitally are bright, and blemish-free. Yet they feel ... odd.

Digital projection supplies a different experience than photochemistry-based projection. The image is clear -- eeriely so. But it's also less dense, less nuanced, and far less sensual than a good-quality traditional film image. Digital projection seems to suit thwacky-slammy pictures just fine. Action-adventure pix, computer-animated films, blockbusters, and dumbo comedies should do fine projected digitally. But quieter films, and especially films that deal in mood, poetry, and tactility -- movies like "Swimming Pool" and "Last Tango in Paris" -- would lose a lot. As far as I've been able to tell, movies projected digitally don't feel like what they're sold as: movies perfected. They feel like ultrabigscreen TV.

So I often find myself wondering: If movie theaters embrace digital projection ... And if going to a movie theater stops being an alternative to watching TV and instead comes to resemble watching super-TV ... How much longer are movie theaters likely to last? After all, in three years home televisions are likely to be pretty big too. And given the choice between watching bigscreen TV at home and paying ten bucks to watch bigger-screen TV at a movie theater, I suspect that I'll be choosing to watch at home.

Small additional question: If movies turn into big TV, what's likely to become of the art of film?



UPDATE: Thanks to Robert Nagle, who points out this Walter Murch essay about the digital cinema. It's a very rewarding -- if long-winded (and slow-getting-started) -- read. Robert himself has been thinking a lot about Walter Murch recently, and links to this good q&a with him. And here's a Newsweek discussion of how computers have affected film editing.

UPDATE 2: Michael Jennings blogs about the experience of digital filmmaking here.

posted by Michael at October 27, 2005


I'd say film would go the way of vinyl, for aficianados and die-hard cinephiles, but how many people could put a movie theater/projection booth in their house? I suppose a few art houses that showed film would remain. It's too bad, though. I still like going to the movies. Experiencing a film communally adds something that you don't get at home.

Posted by: Rachel on October 27, 2005 12:39 PM

Walter Murch has some thoughts about the subject .

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 27, 2005 1:59 PM

Have y'all read about Rogert Ebert's anti-digital campaign? He promotes an analog system with higher frame rate as an alternative. (And yes, I realize film is actually a temporally descrete system, therefore not purely analog, but then, what is?)

Anyway, Ebert mentions a theory that digital images induce a kind of mental passivity that film does not. For some reason I want to believe that is true, but I have no idea how credible it is. You can read Ebert's opinions on the subject here.

Posted by: Fred on October 27, 2005 2:42 PM

What you are seeing on the digital projection is too much contrast.

Film can contain 12-14 bits of information per color channel. One of the big secrets on the hardware side is that with few exceptions LCD based screens/projectors effectively only display 7 bits of data/channel. The average human eye can discern 8 bits of data/channel.

So you have film which captures/displays more information than they eye can see and digital projection which displays less than the eye can see.

Now at least on the display end I am aware of at least one high end manufacturer that has models in the works that will display *true* 8 bit/channel color. So I would image that the projection manufacturers are also working on this.

The color resolution is a far bigger factor than the linear resolution, especially with video. Assuming a 60 degree FOV 2000 lines of resolution works out to 2 arc-minutes line. Most people would not notice this on a still image (assuming average contrast) much less a moving picture.

Posted by: Nobody on October 27, 2005 2:46 PM

Rachel -- It's lovely when going-out-to-see-a-film really works out well, isn't it? A good audience, a well-projected movie, etc? A really nice shared art-entertainment experience.

Robert -- Thanks, I've linked to it (and to you) in an Update.

Fred -- Yeah, and not a chance in hell the system Ebert likes will catch on. I wonder about it too. I'm sure it's as glorious as he says it is visually. But one of the qualities movies have that people have puzzled over for a long time is their ability to throw you into a distinctive awake-dreaming mindset that seems to be different than the state you go into reading, or watching TV. Receptive but alert, engaged but dreamy ... I don't know that anyone's ever explained why it happens or what it comes from, but a lot of people have guessed that it has something to do with the frames-per-second rate that movies are projected at. Movie frames flip just barely fast enough to fool us into thinking that the action is continuous. Any slower and we'd see a definite stutter. And some people think that this particular fps rate contributes to the mindstate we go into watching a movie. Given that the fps rate is much faster, I wonder if Ebert's system would ruin that effect. BTW, one thing I missed when I watched movies digitally projected was that eensie bit of flicker you often pick up at a movie. Digital movies looks hyper-continuous, and more like a hyperclear home video than a movie image. Maybe the flicker has something to do with that.

Nobody -- Thanks for the info. It'll be interesting to see what more gets discovered as improvements and tweaks are made to digital movies. Movie film has more latitude than video does ... Its particles are irregular where digital imagery comes in regimented rows of pixels ... All these things may play roles in how we experience the results. Here's hoping you and Walter Murch will be keeping us up to date.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 27, 2005 3:00 PM

Physical film running through a projector is still a unique visceral experience that will not be matched by whatever can be done digitally. However, it is ultimately doomed, I think. The costs of making prints and distributing them is high, and the movie studios have figured out that if they no longer have that as part of the budget of a film, that's just more profit for them. (But, due to the costs of having a digital projector, as Michael pointed out, I betcha there will be deals made where studios will have to assume part of the maintenance of digital projectors if they want them to come into fashion sooner.)

The major upshot of this is the studios get to completely and utterly control distribution. If they aren't broadcasting it to the theatres, it ain't being shown. Right now, they have to go physically get the print out of the theatre if for some reason they want showings halted (for either non-payment or evil government conspiracy reasons). When digital takes over, if a show is tanking, the studio can pull the plug on the spot and offer something else they think will make money ("Ghostbusters VI on all 12 screens tonight!"), essentially taking one more decision away from the theatres themselves.

The upside of course is that if a movie is suddenly popular, like say a dream situation where Ballard's film "Duma" were to take off, it could be available at your theatre tonight. This would especially be great in small towns where I grew up. We often had to wait till the end of the summer to see the mid-line summer quasi-hits just because they couldn't get a print until then.

Digital projection is coming, but who gets stuck with the bill has to be sorted out. Once that's done, film will fade away. And you will always have to check the web or or moviephone before you go just in case they cancelled your showing.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 27, 2005 4:17 PM


You watch a lot of movies on DVD, presumably without the exact subliminal esthetics of film. Is that experience so different than seeing a film in a theater? If it is, how much worse is it?

I'm in no way criticising wanting to see movies in theaters the old-fashioned way, but my ability to get out and go see movies I really want to see, projected the way I want to see them, has grown so small that if it went all the way to zero, I would pretty much not notice. I'd love to have an art-movie theater in my house, able to show good prints of, say, Dreyer's "Vampyr" whenever I want to see it, but I doubt that this will be coming my way any time soon. As for the vast majority of movies I can readily go see, well, for my money they're just as entertaining on DVD. I really don't get any "cinema buzz" out of the average film that shows up at my local theaters. Sigh.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 27, 2005 5:22 PM

Going digital might make it even easier for pirates to rip off hit films to manufacture pirate DVDs. I presume that to make a copy of a film today, the pirate has to actually run the film through a projector and capture it on a digital device. When it goes all digital, he'll just push a button.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 27, 2005 7:45 PM

I was having a discussion last night about the future of the movie industry, with "declining" (ie, not increasing at projected rates) profits and so forth...

One of the things that was mentioned was the communal experience of film. Realistically, though, I don't think that's existed for a decade at least. Big-budget 40 screen cineplexes with stadium seating are not, by the by, communal experiences. More frequently, it's you and the people sitting immediately next to you... and some rude woman with a crying baby or a yuppie with a ringing cell phone, or the kids in the back yucking it up, or the person who gives a running dialogue of the plotline... Sure, it's great when everyone in the audience laughs at a joke, or when everyone in the audience cheers at the bad guy's demise. I've seen that, oh, twice.

For several years now my friends and I have largely given up the theater scene and moved to watching movies at home. It's a much more pleasant experience, and I'd say that it's a much more critically useful experience. Almost every time there's a get together where we watch a movie our discussions of the movie last twice as long as the movie itself. The few times I've gone to movies in the theaters in the past few years rarely have I said more to say than, "That was nice." While that's primarily a function of the quality of the movies, it's also a function of the experience itself. For $10 a ticket my experience better darn well be nice. Heh.

On an aside about the FPS issue -- It's interesting. I actually, fairly frequently, end up, if I watch TV, noticing the frame rate. I don't know whether anyone else perceives this as well, but there are a lot of shows that have overall very nice picture quality, but whose framerate is quite noticeable (low). Dateline and other such news shows are frequent offenders, as well as daytime TV shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil. I'd also point out some of the newer spinoff crime dramas, like Law and Order SVU. I suspect this has a lot to do with the film itself and any processing they use to exaggerate the colors, or so on. Nevertheless, the effect of the visible framerate IS quite mesmerizing (although at times also incredibly irritating). It's not tough for me to believe that a slightly faster frame rate would just produce a more subtle subliminal effect.

Posted by: . on October 27, 2005 11:48 PM

Yahmdallah, I'm sure movie theaters would like financial help from the studios to invest in digital equipment but the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 pretty much put an end to studios controlling movie theaters, didn't it?

Posted by: Rachel on October 28, 2005 7:17 AM

Lordy, lordy, do we get to have the CD-vs-vinyl or tube amplifier-vs-solid state wars again?

I have no idea when the market will judge digital projection to be "good enough," but I'm enough of a quantitative-sciencey guy to believe that it's a question of measurable quantities such as resolution, dynamic range and color fidelity. No doubt when all those measurements match or surpass those of film, there will still be "golden eyes" (like some audiophiles' golden ears) who detect nuances nobody can measure. My view is that photons is photons.

Posted by: Monte Davis on October 28, 2005 8:35 AM


My understanding is that the most common form of pirating is a camcorder in the theater. The next most common form is from studio insiders getting their hands on digital masters. Neither of these depends on the projection method, since all movies are projected in theaters and most movies now have digital masters.

I suppose this could change once more movies are distributed to theaters digitally, but I think there are also possible remedies to that, including digital watermarking.

While there is widespread DVD pirating, the DVD industry is still thriving, so I suspect even if digital projection in the theaters becomes more common, piracy is still not going to destroy the movie industry.

I agree with Michael Blowhard that I can definitely tell the difference between a digitally projected movie and the standard variety. However, I'm not such a traditionalist that I think that somehow old film projection technology will never be improved upon. I certainly *won't* miss those scratchy film prints and blotches on the screen to signal reel-changes.

Posted by: Dave Munger on October 28, 2005 9:01 AM

Yahmdallah -- I think you're right that traditional film is doomed. Which wouldn't bother me a bit -- what do I care about celluloid per se? -- if it didn't seem as though the legacy of film history were being wiped out too. Sigh.

FvB -- You feel no attachment to traditional film history? I'm a softer-hearted person than you are, I guess. Movies were my favorite 20th century art form. I'd be happy, even eager, to see how they evolve and develop. But as audiovisual-through-time entertainment evolves in the direction of computers and video, it seems as though film history and film language are being stampeded by something else entirely. I'm curious and interested -- marvels will certainly emerge. But I do wince, in much the same way I wince when I revisit my hometown and see that it hasn't developed as a town since I left, it's been obliterated.

Steve -- Oddly, it seems that one reason the studios favor digital projection is that they think it'll reduce piracy. So the WSJ article said, anyway. Without explaining very clearly how and why this might be so.

"." -- I react to most current movie theaters the way you seem to. And I agree that many people seem to have lost the knack for attending movies. It seems to me that many of them base their theater behavior on their at-home-on-the-sofa behavior. Which means, in effect, that most of the time what you're getting for your ten bucks is a bigger version of watching movies at home, only you're among people you don't know instead. The shift over to digital projection should complete that illusion. I love watching movies at home myself, and look forward to big, affordable, movie-screen-shaped HD TVs. Once I've got one, theatergoing will become even rarer than it is now, that's for sure. It sounds like you and your friends have very nice communal movie-watching experiences, btw. Or semi-communal, anyway.

Rachel - That's right, but the WSJ article was interesting in spelling out a few of the deals that movie studios have proposed to the theaters. They can't control 'em, but they can certainly offer them powerful incentives, not that they've succeeded yet.

Monte -- As far as the studios are concerned, digital projection is already "good enough" in quality terms. And for 99% of what they make and market I'd have to agree they're right. It's just the deal-making side of things that hasn't been ironed out yet.

Dave -- It's odd, watching the digitally-projected movies, isn't it? I'd be curious to hear more about how you find the experience. Action adventure and computer animation seem perfect for digital projection. Pop! Thwack! Boom!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 28, 2005 10:27 AM

I am not sure about the digital vs film quality debate. But when CD defenders said Perfect Sound Forever and Bits are Bits, they defended 16 bit CD's imperfections by saying that CD was capturing literally every audible characteristic of old analog tapes. Critics were and are derided as fools.

Guess what, now that we have SACD with much higher resolution, double blind studies show that remastered old tapes DO sound better than they did on CD. How is that possible if 16 bit was capturing everything from scratchy old, bandwidth limited tapes?

The jury is out on digital film, but don't believe those claiming science. I do a lot of research with applied statistics, and I can tell you that the audio engineering world's double blind tests are so limited, and their interpretations so overblown that these views would not be accepted by many scholars in other disciplines used to dealing with difficult statistics.

Proving one can hear a difference is hard, but why should the null be: If I can't show a difference in my crappy test, then no difference exists?

The better point is, until you can prove that no difference exists, why shouldn't I pay for something that seems better to me, no matter whether the improvements are real or imagined?

Posted by: nn on October 28, 2005 10:33 AM

My memory is a little vague but I recall reading somewhere about experimental films made with faster than standard frame rates, like 70 fps or more. Supposedly watching such films was also a spooky experience because of "hyper-clarity" and unnaturally smooth action.

When I was watching more movies in theaters, my budds and I made a point of catching Big New Films as early in the release cycle as we could, at major first-run theaters, in the hopes of enjoying near-pristine prints. Waiting until the crowds subsided, or waiting until the movies showed up at the neighborhood or dollar theaters ran the risk of having to endure well-worn prints. Digital would seem to put an end to that problem.

Mention of the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 above brings up something else. I used to make the faint joke that the time between theatrical release of a movie and its subsequent release on video would get so short that soon you'd be able to buy a copy of the movie you just saw at the concession stand on your way out of the theater. It's not much of a joke any more -- I've lately noticed movies still being shown at neighborhood or dollar theaters even after their video release. But as far as I can tell, movie theaters don't sell DVDs at their concession stands, and video stores don't seem to have private screening rooms or mini-theaters.

At first thought, it seems like a natural convergence. Something equivalent to a Suncoast Video store adjacent to the video games in a theater lobby (if not renting the space outright to a Suncoast) would seem like a perfectly obvious bit of synergy. People go to a theater to see a movie, so they're in the mood for movies... why not sell them movie souvenirs, knickknacks, soundtrack CDs, and even DVDs along with the popcorn? It seems like such a natural idea that I can't believe nobody's thought of it, but unless I'm very out of touch, movie theaters just don't sell the peripheral goods.

So I was wondering if there was a reason why theaters and video stores hadn't merged, like the aforementioned antitrust ruling...?


PS: Calling cheapo, last-stop-before-video, theaters "dollar theaters" is probably about as anachronistic now as my parents referring to "dime stores" in my youth, long after it was impossible to find anything that still cost a dime in them. But old habits die hard...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 28, 2005 10:34 AM

I just find this whole digital movie concept very sad. Why couldn't they have just invented the stadium seating with the recliny seats with cup holders and called it a day?

I love the flickering light, the imperceptible breaks between frames, the fantasy of movement made possible by shadow and light.


Posted by: chelsea girl on October 28, 2005 6:54 PM

It is worth observing that there are a lot of different processes in making and showing a film, and we are at a weird transition point where some of them are digital and some are analogue. The two end points - filming and projecting - are generally still analogue (at least if you watch a film in a theatre) some of the processes in between (most notably editing and special effects) are now done almost exclusively digitally. Transfering the film from digital to analogue where needed happens, but is kind of messy. Although the transitions from analogue to digital have so far happened as one off transitions rather than being seen as part of an ongoing process, it seems inevitable to me that before very long the process is going to be end to end digital. (Of course, if you watch a Pixar animated film on an LCD or plasma screen from DVD, or even "Star Wars Episode 3" in this way, then this is happening already). I would think that cinema projection going digital will be part of this.

At least this will happen unless cinemas themelves are dying, everybody is going to watch in their homes, and a few prints will be struck to film at the end of a process for old fogeys who like watching in a theatre.

It might be that cinemas audiences start declining so fast that it just isn't worth anybody paying for the switchover. Cinema audiences are way down this year, and I don't believe it is mainly about the quality of the films. (The year has been so so in terms of quality, but no worse than many other recent years). Something fundamental has changed.

Posted by: Michael Jennings on October 30, 2005 12:30 PM

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