Today's movie audiences can order tickets over the Internet, eat gourmet theater food far removed from simple popcorn and enjoy computer-generated special effects that can make virtually any scene a moviemaker can conceive of seem real.
And yet audiences are still at the mercy of film stock that's been around for more than a century - strips of celluloid that begin to degrade the moment they're run through a projector. See a movie that's been in theaters more than a few days, and be prepared for all sorts of splices, scratches, dust specks and pops - visual imperfections that are at best irritating, at worst debilitating to the moviegoing experience.
But film projection may finally be inching its way toward the 21st century.
An agreement last week by a consortium of five Hollywood studios to funnel more than $1 billion into making digital projection available to 20,000 U.S. theater screens should lead to better and more consistent picture quality, industry leaders say, and enable theaters to widen their programming by projecting concerts and other live events. In addition, bringing digital capacity to so many more theater screens will increase the number able to show 3-D films, which many industry analysts see as the next big thing in motion-picture technology.
At present, about 5,000 of the 40,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada are equipped with digital technology, which is necessary to show such 3-D features as the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fly Me to the Moon.
"Not only are they now going to get movies of a much higher quality," says Julian Levin, executive vice president of digital exhibition for 20th Century Fox, "but they also will have the ability now to get all kinds of alternative forms of content, and to experience 3-D like it's never been experienced before."
In addition to Fox, the participating studios are Disney, Paramount, Universal and Lionsgate. The agreement was brokered by the Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, or DCIP, whose members are three of the nation's biggest theater chains: AMC, Cinemark and Regal. AMC and Regal operate theaters in the Baltimore area.
Under terms of the agreement, the studios will pay the theater group about $1,000 per movie per screen; that money, in turn, will be used to pay off loans the theaters will have to secure to pay for digital upgrades, which cost about $70,000 per screen.
"From the exhibitors' standpoints, there are two benefits," says Michael V. Lewis, CEO and co-founder of Real D, a leading provider of 3-D film technology. "One is 3-D, which is a big bright spot, in terms of getting people back to the theaters, of getting the magic back, if you will. And secondly, they'll be able to program those theaters much like you would program a TV station, with alternative content, sports, live events and concerts."
For nearly a century, movie theaters have been restricted to showing films delivered to them on bulky reels, each one showing about 20 minutes of a movie. With digital projection, movies are shown from what is essentially a DVD, which cuts down drastically on the cost to the studios of making film copies and the cost to distributors of sending those films to theaters. In addition, using content sent to them via satellite or other technology, theaters with digital capacity would be able to show such live events as football games, rock concerts even the Academy Awards.
Projecting movies digitally "is far more efficient and cost-effective than doing it on film," says Levin. In fact, the $1,000 per movie per screen that the studios will be contributing to the DCIP is about equal to the money they'll be saving in distribution costs. Studios will stop paying the fees when the equipment upgrade has been paid for.
Digital projection presents a much more vivid picture than is possible with film, Levin says.
But even more important, as far as audiences are concerned, may be digital technology's durability. Whereas film tends to fade or break or get scratched over the weeks a movie may play at a theater, the digital version should stay fresh almost indefinitely.
"The image quality is extraordinary, and it is perfect every time," Lewis says.
Movie studios have often used improved technology to lure more people into theaters. In the late 1920s, adding dialogue to movies resulted in audiences lining up around the block to see films like The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody, while the widespread use of color helped movies like Gone With the Wind and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs break box-office records in the 1930s. When television threatened to keep audiences at home in the 1950s, movie studios used Cinerama and other wide-screen processes to lure people back into theaters. And the widespread use of computer-generated special effects has made possible such $300 million-plus blockbusters as Titanic, Spider-Man and The Dark Knight.
Even 3-D has been used before, in the mid-1950s, as a way to attract audiences. Limitations in the technology, including difficulty in getting the required dual images to line up perfectly, prevented it from catching on as anything but a curiosity. But improvements in synchronization, plus refinements that have even made the requisite funny glasses less cumbersome, have convinced the studios it's time to try the extra dimension once again.
Disney and DreamWorks have already announced that all their animated films will be released in 3-D. That includes next month's Bolt, from Disney, and DreamWorks' Shrek Goes Fourth, set for 2010. Fox has a pair of 3-D films set for next year, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Titanic director James Cameron's sci-fi drama, Avatar.
With funding for 3-D conversions freed up, Lewis says, "we can now get prepared for the avalanche of movies that are coming out in 3-D over the next couple years. There are 13 movies coming out in Real D next year, and there are 40 movies on the release slate overall."
Although last week's agreement represents the culmination of nearly three years of negotiation, the current economic crisis could stall the process. With banks hesitant to lend money, it could prove difficult for theater owners to obtain financing.
"The very tough credit markets are a cause for concern," Levin says. "We remain hopeful that the credit markets will loosen up a little, and that the funding will flow for this transition."