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Thursday, May 16, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Will digital movies become a Force?

Seattle Times business reporter

The Cinerama may have retro décor, but today's opening of "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" puts the downtown Seattle theater into the future.

The Cinerama is the only movie theater in the state with a digital projector, which means it can digitally display the George Lucas film, the first major movie created without a roll of film. Theaters without such projectors can show the movie, but they use a version that has been printed from the digital format onto 35 mm film.

The technology behind the digital presentation not only eliminates film, but also the natural wear and tear that occur when film is copied and run repeatedly through a projector.

The Cinerama was wired for digital during the 1999 renovation instigated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who had bought the theater a year earlier. "Our goal is to show as much digital as we can," said Jason Hunke, Cinerama spokesman.

But with only 94 theaters worldwide using the technology, it's clear that digital cinema is experiencing some growing pains.

Boeing, through one of its non-aerospace enterprises, put the pieces together for Cinerama to offer digital movies. Boeing's digital cinema service can transmit a movie via satellite simultaneously to servers at the Cinerama and the 22 other theaters it has signed up. A typical film, which is compressed from about a terabyte (1 trillion bytes) of data to 60 to 80 gigabytes, takes six to 10 hours to download.

Theaters equipped with digital cinema projectors don't have to receive movies from a satellite download, however. "Episode II" fits onto 15 DVD-recordable discs, which can be physically delivered to the theater.

A secure link streams the movie from the server to a special projector where technology developed by Texas Instruments processes the data and sends it to three chips called digital micromirror devices. The devices, about the size of a frame of 35 mm film, contain more than 1.3 million tiny mirrors, each one representing a pixel on the screen.

"The digital data controls the mirrors, telling them when to turn on or off and what color to turn," said Brooke Williams, manager of marketing and field demonstrations for the DLP Cinema Products division of TI.

The same type of lamp used in a regular film projector is focused onto the devices, with the mirrors controlling the amount of light bouncing to the screen.

Currently, all digital projectors in use employ TI's technology, but JVC and other manufacturers are developing their own flavors. Therein lies one of the roadblocks theater owners face when considering installing digital cinema technology.

"We're trying to find out what the standards will be," said Brent Siewert, general manager of the Majestic Bay theater in Ballard. "To make the investment — and it will be big — you don't want to bet on Betamax." He doesn't expect moving to digital cinema for eight to 10 years.

Other smaller movie houses are watching theater chains before making any decisions about digital cinema. "We'll let the big boys duke it out," said Teri White, northwest district manager for Landmark Theaters.

Theater owners are also hoping that while the larger chains make their decisions the price for the gear will drop. Boeing estimates that a theater will invest about $200,000 for the equipment to show digital films. A new film projector costs about $30,000.

Digital production benefits studios and distributors, which can save significantly on costs of duplicating and distributing films. The Motion Picture Association estimates that studios and distributors can cut 25 percent off the cost of production, management and distribution of films by going digital.

But the theaters, which are the entities being asked to invest in the gear, haven't figured out why they should buy digital.

"We've got equipment that works. There's no real push financially for us to change," said Siewert.

Some experts think that distributors, because they stand to benefit the most, may contribute to or outright sponsor the purchase of digital equipment. "The distributors may be best positioned to break the logjam caused by the economic climate, the financial structure in place and the conflicting interests among the stakeholders," Krishan Bhatia, a senior associate at Booz Allen, said in a recent report.

Theater owners also have questions about reliability. "Are you just trading one set of problems for another?" Siewert asked. "A damaged print is a damaged print, but a pixelated movie or a download that fails or a computer crash is different."

Microsoft plans to release a product code-named "Corona" soon that initially will be essentially a stripped-down version of digital cinema geared toward independent film producers.

"Our solution will enable those types of filmmakers to get their work out," said Erin Cullen, a product manager at Microsoft. Corona's resolution won't be as good as true digital cinema, and the technology requires a projector different from those produced for the major theaters such as the Cinerama.

Corona's strength, however, may be in plans to include chips supporting the technology in PCs. "When that ships it will enable the highest video-playback resolution on the PC — it'll be HDTV quality," said Cullen.

Nancy Gohring can be reached at ngohring@seattletimes.com.

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