New York Times Asks “Digital Projection of Films Is Coming. Now, Who Pays?”

posted by CinemAFuchs on October 14, 2003 at 3:51 pm

LOS ANGELES, CA — Reporter Eric Taub takes a look into the economics of digital projection, and how the industry plans to shoulder the costs of upgrading.

Moviegoers who recently saw the Johnny Depp film “Once Upon a Time in Mexico'‘ at the Pacific Sherman Oaks Galleria 16 cinema here may have noticed that something was different. Instead of the traces of dust and scratches, and the slight shaking of the image that is perceptible at many screenings, they were looking at a picture that is pristine, sharp and steady.

That is because the film was projected digitally, the images fed not from a five-foot-diameter reel of 35-millimeter film, but from a computer hard drive, and beamed onto the screen using a projector without any moving parts.

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Comments (23)

cirish on October 14, 2003 at 5:39 pm

I remember watching The Lord Of The Rings in a digitally projected Movie Theatre at the AMC Winston Churchill 24 in Oakville Ontario Canada. The picture and sound was amazing. Everytime I look at the movie listings I always see movie theaters that show films like “Once Upon A Time In Mexico” & “Underworld” with digital sound & digital projection. It the way of the future.

Patrick Crowley
Patrick Crowley on October 14, 2003 at 5:45 pm

For those who are skeptical about digital projection — and, don’t get me wrong, i’m not saying it’s perfect by any means — I recommend a viewing of Pixar’s Finding Nemo on a digital projector. The next chapters of The Lord of the Rings and/or the The Matrix might also be good bets.

(Not surprisingly, films that are digital in origin, or contain heavy FX sequences, do best on these screens.)

nick on October 17, 2003 at 7:53 pm

Having been a projectionist in New Zealand for 20 odd yers- i can tell you the attempts in this country[re-digital] fall well short.Film technology seems to be keeping pace judging by the new generation of release prints. Bad handling has and is ‘celluloids’ greatest foe.– Nick.

Bob007 on October 27, 2003 at 6:34 pm

I’ve seen Digital Projection three times on a 30 foot CinemaScope screen. I want to know if digital can give us good images on an 80 foot screen before I get too excited about it. Picture quality in theatres could be improved right now in hundreds of theatres if 70MM prints were made available.

nick on October 27, 2003 at 6:47 pm

Can anyone out there tell more your industry standard digital projector that can last 30-40 years like 35mm and what protects these expensive digital projectors from obsolescence in today,s driven society.

Bob007 on October 28, 2003 at 1:45 pm

A good point has been raised about the life expectancy of digital projectors. I spent 24 years in projection rooms and most projectors I ran were over 25 years old. They had been rebuilt every few years, but that was much cheaper than replacing them. Of course it’s too early to even speculate but as mentioned earlier, will DLP projectors have the same track record? Also remember, digital projection isn’t going to save the theatre owners any money. They will still be charged the same film rental percentage rates they are being charged now. Most exhibitors have already eliminated the projectionist “position” by staffing the booth with a manager or 16 year old kid who doesn’t know an aspect ratio from a focus knob. So any money they are going to save in the projection booth has already been factored in.

Patrick Crowley
Patrick Crowley on October 28, 2003 at 3:34 pm

Almost certainly, digital projectors will not have anything near the life expectancy of older film projectors. But that’s missing the point, somewhat.

For instance, a good typewriter can last for decades, while a good computer can last for about 5 years (at most). But which device is ultimately more useful?

Digital projectors, by their very nature, will obsolete quickly. The question is… will the economics of the exhibition industry ever support a full-scale deployment of DLP systems? Will obsolence allow theaters to regularly upgrade their projectors? Or will it prove to be an insurmountable expense?

I can give you ten reasons why a full-scale deployment might never happen, but my hunch is the transition to digital — whether it’s 5, 10, or 20 years from now — is inevitable.

Bob007 on October 28, 2003 at 5:23 pm

The typewriter vs. the computer is a good comparison. I too believe that the transition to digital (which I do not oppose in principle) is inevitable. But it will take decades given the very slim margins theatres operate under. Very few theatres make a reasonable profit, if any, at the box office. Their profit center is the concession stand. That’s why it costs $9 for coke and popcorn! These folks just don’t have money to throw around.

Theatre owners were burned in the 1950s with 3-D and Magnetic stereo sound. They were told that all movies would have mag stereo and many would be in 3-D. So, they bought the equipment but the industry didn’t deliver the product. In the late 1970s and 80s, many theatres installed 70MM projection equipment only to be left holding that bag too as by the early 90s, 70MM prints were generally a thing of the past. Theatres have bought into so much stuff that didn’t last, they are going to proceed with great caution at completely changing the way they get the picture to the screen.

TWilkins on November 3, 2003 at 4:25 pm

I want to vocalize what is very uncool today’s technology-crazed world: the idea that movies are, by their very nature, celluloid film. The analogy of using a word processor vs. a typewriter is not an appropriate one because words can be presented in a myriad of formats and still retain the meaning/intention of the writer; on the contrary, the film medium is not transparent. There is a scientifically observable psychological effect created by the intermittent 1/48th sec. motion of alternating light-dark and transmission of pure color/light tonalities on a motion picture screen. When people talk of the “inevitable” conversion to digital the implication is nothing less than an aesthetic power play: no one can presume superiority over an entire language of expression that has evolved over the past 100+ years. Granted, most Hollywood blockbusters look more like video games than movies and do not take advantage of the qualities of the film medium (this does not hinder them), but the possibility of great works of cinema still exists. Does anyone find it ironic that Johnny Depp can make millions for a few months of work yet these studio execs seem so concerned with saving $50 (or less) per screen to ship the film? (Not only that, but what about the numbers of American workers in film manufacturing, laboratory and shipping industries who will find themselves unemployed—but no, we don’t want to think about that—we are starstruck). Anyone who has closely scrutinized the areas where digital technology has offered alternatives to photochemical processes (such as many of the one-hour color photo processing outlets and in digital motion picture intermediates) can see the end products are grossly inferior. The “digital revolution” is just marketing/ brainwashing at it’s worst: based in everyday human fears (don’t get left behind!) and providing justification for the ugliest of human qualities—laziness and greed.

Bob007 on November 3, 2003 at 5:27 pm

I think TW missed the point of the typewriter vs. PC analogy. The point wasn’t what is communicated with each device – it was the longevity of the device itself and how often it may need to be replaced. No one knows how long DLP projectors will last before needing to be rebuilt or replaced. Only time will answer that question and the economic questions too.

As far as the concern about American workers losing their jobs in shipping and film manufacturing due to digital technology; many workers may be already losing jobs in shipping and overnight transportation because of e-mail. That’s a digital revolution too, yet all of us obviously use it without apparent regard for it’s economic affect on others. By the way, when I was managing movie theatres, the theatres paid for the shipping of prints. The distributors have never been concerned about that cost because they’ve never born it.

Finally, the digital revolution is simply a part of the forever on going “technical evolution”. I don’t believe Henry Ford was being driven by “laziness and greed” when he developed the first automobile assemby line. He was simply looking for better way to run his business, and in doing so actually made his product more affordable to the public. Progress will come, things will change, and yes, some people will be left behind, unless they change with it. It’s been that way through all of human history. I would have hated to be a candle maker living next door to Thomas Edison, or a calligrapher in the time of Guttenberg!

Vito on June 18, 2004 at 11:39 am

Bob007 made a very good point, I believe it may be why the industry was a little gun shy about buying into Dolby noise reduction and stereo in the 70s. In addition of course is the cost factor, who is going to pay for all this new DLP equipment? Of course the studios would like to elimimnate the cost of print production and shipping, but what’s in in for the theatre owner? So far the public has not shown as much interest in Digital projection as it did to Digital sound. When tracking the grosses in a multiplex where 3 prints of the same film were playing, one digital and two film, the digital version was not preferred, in sharp contrast to a time in the early 90s when Dolby or DTS Digital sound prints outgrossed prints presented in anaolg Dolby stereo. So back to the question of who pays, The cost of DLP projestion is enourmous, an exhibitor can literally equip an entire 10 screen projection room with film projection at the same cost of equiping just one screen with DPL. So untill the cost comes down dramatically or the studios begin to help with the financing, I do not believe we will see much in the way of DLP.

Camden on July 1, 2004 at 9:16 pm

I saw the George Clooney version of “Ocean’s Eleven” (shot on film) projected digitally at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City and the picture quality was so abominable that I actually thought about getting up and going to a different theatre so I could see it properly. It looked like a huge projection of a VHS picture, which is basically what I guess it was. The trees in the background were an indeterminate blur and I swore I’d never see another digital projection in a theatre; predictably, that resolution didn’t last and I’ve seen several others since, the best picture being the unusual look of “28 Days Later.” It still can’t compete with film, though, and I’ll join the awful ranks of people that seldom go to theatres when film finally disappears.


Vito on July 1, 2004 at 9:53 pm

Yes, the wider the screen and the longer the throw from the booth to the screen, the worse the digital image is. Perhaps that is why the Ziegfeld took the equipment out and now shows only film.

Camden on July 15, 2004 at 1:56 am

Yes, and the place to sit is right in the middle, midway between the throw and the screen, of course. I think it was a sort of one-shot experiment when they ran “Ocean’s Eleven,” and the Ziegfeld hadn’t actually purchased the necessary equipment, although that’s only a conjecture. In any case, it was just awful, and you’re right, the Ziegfeld’s awesome screen undoubtedly only made it worse. Digital is a horrible technology. The hell of it was that “Ocean’s Eleven” was the sort of rather emptily glitzy film that depended more on attractive images than anything else; I love quite a few of Clooney’s films, but this isn’t one of them. I can’t believe they’re shooting a sequel. By the way, the obvious reason that Don Cheadle wasn’t billed along with the others is that his name comes before Clooney’s alphabetically.


rroberts on July 16, 2004 at 11:32 am

May I remind our readers that when sound technology was introduced in the late 1920s there was vehement opposition. Old celluloid, sprockets and popping sound technology must make way for newer clean and efficient digital equipment. Like it or not, digital technology is here to stay. Science usually prevails. With more efficient lamps and projector equipment, we will be seeing our favorite movies (and newer movies) in bigger formats with better sound and picture. I was opposed to movies on VHS years ago and now I have a massive legal DVD collection. For now think back to Jolson who said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Camden on July 17, 2004 at 10:58 pm

If digital technology doesn’t improve immensely from the loathsome picture it features now, we’ll never see anything again.


davepring on December 9, 2004 at 5:46 pm

I think that digital is the way forward.
I have just seen Pixars The Incredibles here in London at The Empire Leicester Square and the quality of the image was superb.Celluloid has to be handled with care and unfortunately most of the multiplex cinemas here have no idea how to present a film . I have yet to see a pristine print at either of my local multiplexes.

Capitol on March 18, 2005 at 9:42 pm

I think you have yet to see a pristine print of a film, and have aggrevation towards cinema folk about film handeling because of the influx of megaplex theatres staffed by teenage employees who think working in a theatre is a “cool” summer job. I grew up ( litterally) in a family operated movie theatre in a small hick town in Quebec, and have seen the progression of film from the early 80’s till now. The minute megaplexes were brought about, quality and film viewing expieriences went downhill. The whole philosphy to them is to run the film as much as possible to accomodate everyone. At the theatre i grew up in, ever since i can remember it’s been a 7pm and 9pm showing of films. Everytime you run a film through it looses a generation. As for digital projection. I’m sure it’ll be all over the place soon. But in my eyes that takes away the good ole thought of the faint whistling of the projectionist overhead that cast a sinister yet inviting shadow in the projection window behind the movie goers. Theres nothing better than watching an old calasehanded man peer through the window as he draws the curtains and flicks a slew of lights off as the movie begins with a slight pop and scratch. I understand quality is what people want. But when you go get your hair cut, would you trust a machine pop over your head as someones saying lemme adjust the peramiters and skew for the cut you want? I bet not. I’m only 23 and to some people thats a young whipersnapper, but in my eyes movie theaters and the idea of a weekend matinee or an early night date at the cinema is long gone due to the influx of technology and megasuperdupersizeplexes. The only upgrades i do agree with are sound and screen.. but other than that gimme the grainy film.. thats what makes it a film. I have a dvd player at home.. i dont want to watch someone project one for me.

rcdt55b on April 11, 2005 at 12:15 am

Digital technology may be hear to stay, but they have been saying that it will replace film for 12 years now. It’s nowhere close to being widespread. A couple of theaters here and there use it once in a while. Film will be around for a long, long time.

pzman84 on June 12, 2005 at 8:25 pm

One thing people forget to bring up is the fact film profits have been going downhill. When ever people talk about how great all this new technology is, I always remind them that films are of lesser quality and make less money than they did 30 years ago. Also, as many people have pointed out, they have been saying for the last 25 years and nothing has happened. Consider this, sound was introduced in 1927 and by 1934 virtually every theater had sound equipment. However, nowadays, only a handful of theaters have digital projectors.
My simple response is: what is wrong with film? I mean, come on. If it is not broken, don’t fix it. How many people can honestly say Rodriguez’s DP work on “Sin City” was better than Toland’s in “Citizen Kane?” Or, what digitally-enhanced colors can surpass that of the Technicolor 3-strip process? Any music lover can tell you a LP sounds better than a CD. Film will always be superior to digital.

rcdt55b on June 12, 2005 at 9:17 pm

That’s what I have been saying for years. The problem is that it is all about the money. It will be cheaper to eliminate film and shoot everything with digital. You’re not gaining much with digital other than unscratched films. It’s just cheaper.

Vito on June 13, 2005 at 11:12 am

I would agre with most of what pzman84 wrote, however with respect to the 1920s sound conversion and today’s digital projection, there is a major difference. When sound was introduced people demanded more, silent filme were doomed and all theatres and studios had to make the change. We had a similar situation with the arrival of digital sound. In 1993 when Jurrassic Park opened in DTS sound, many theatres installled the new equipment. When the movie played in a multiplex on 2 or more screens, it was presented in both DTS digital as well as analog Dolby stereo versions, people would demand to see the DTS version which outgrossed the analog version on a regular basis. The same does not appear to apply to digital film. With the exception of a “Star Wars”, for the most part People do not seem to be choosing the showtimes in the digital format over film. In other words they just don’t care. Sound is a big deal but not the picture. So, as RCDTJ has written the savings and advantages are for the studios benefit, there is little for the theatre owners to gain here. The big fight now is, who is going to pay for this very, and I mean VERY, expensive conversion. A plan is underway for the studios to pool together and help with the cost. It would be a good investment for them since the savings down the line will be huge. I hate to see it happen, I will miss film as I do LPs.

dave-bronx™ on October 4, 2005 at 4:07 pm

Last I heard, conversion to digital was about $75G per screen. Disney’s “Chicken Little” is the next one, later on this month – and not just digital, but 3D digital. And Disney has installed the equipment at their own expense in about 85 screens nationwide.

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