End of the Line

Movie TheatreIf a Sith Lord can’t overcome the digital divide in country cinemas, who can? Drew Turney finds out.

As Australians enjoy the fully digital blockbuster experience of Star Wars Episode III (the only analogue part of the process is the reel your cinema will load onto their projector), it’s worth sparing a thought for those far off, independent and country cinemas and how they’ll fare in the world of fully digitised movies.

It seems like a no-brainer — distributors have to pay film labs to produce and transport a print of the movie for every cinema it’s going to be shown in, a huge expense. It means the economies of movie exhibition and distribution run close to breaking point, allowing much less room for the sort of risk filmmakers (and many moviegoers) would like to see.

But if movies were digital, the distributor (or the studio, or Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese themselves, for that matter) could simply send the movie over the Internet to every cinema on earth for the price of a phone call?

Basically that’s the theory; there’s more to the practice. Your average country cinema running a session a night on a single screen is unlikely to shell out $150,000 for a digital projector — not when the local pensioners club day out is going to be watching the same movie they would have been watching anyway.

‘It’s fair to say it’ll cost less in the long run,’ says David Sanderson. As Kodak Australia’s Asia region manager of digital cinema, he knows what he’s talking about. ‘But there’s a whole raft of issues to deal with. For example, digital equipment won’t last 50 years like 35mm film does, so you’re probably looking at five or six years before you’ll have to replace something. But because the cost of a digital movie file is so much less than a film reel, all the factors indicate digital will make it about half the cost of a print to get the movie into the cinema.’

Part of the reason for the stalemate is uncertainty about who’ll benefit. It looks at first glance like distributors will reap the savings, but the digital chain is unsustainable unless cost savings can be passed onto exhibitors and free them from the pressure to screen only high-performing blockbusters.

With that freedom, they can ask for more diversity (i.e. not just commercial fare) from distributors, who’ll in turn invest in it, which will in turn open the door to a huge number of filmmakers with different voices.

Cinemas can also strengthen their own position by diversifying; specialising in certain genres or documentaries, maybe just on certain nights when it’s usually quiet. The possibilities of not being enslaved to a huge and expensive reel of film that has to pay for itself quickly are endless — it could change the entire model upon which cinemas operate.

Far Reaching Transmission

It’s a lot easier for a hacker to steal a data file off a server than a film canister on a courier truck. With the arrival of mass-market digital cinema, the piracy war will enter a whole new level, and Hollywood is already pre-empting the fight by promoting standards not just of projection but transmission.

Kodak’s David Sanderson again; ‘If you want to show Hollywood movies then the projection facilities have to comply with the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) standards. Wherever you are, you need the equipment that supports it.

‘So when the movie is transmitted to you you’d need to get what’s called a key — which is basically a text file — that gets sent out to the server and actually allows the movie to be shown between certain dates and at certain times, etc.’

But an even bigger problem than encryption is getting a data file containing a 90-minute feature film (it’s a lot bigger deal than sending an email) to cinemas in the first place. While big cities are adequately serviced by DSL and other cable technologies like microwave, they’re all point to point, meaning the path goes from the network to your front door — your next door neighbour can’t share it.

For an out of the way location, satellite broadcast is increasingly looking like the answer, where a signal is saturated over a wide area and the dish on your roof drinks it in along with everyone around you who’s similarly equipped? Speeds are good from Australian satellite ISPs and service is reliable.

The Digital Incentive

The possibility of getting digital cinema off the beaten track is all very well, but if you run a small single screen or cinema hall in a country town, do you really want it?

If you’re not sure, Rick McCallum makes a very interesting argument. As the producer of the new Star Wars films, he’s one of the most passionate proponents of digital cinema in the world, having seen how it’s made life so much easier for his director and the changes it’s set to enact across the movie industry — one he claims can’t survive in its current form.

‘When is the industry going to respect its audience?’ he asks. ‘Not just theatre owners but the distributors as well. They’re going to have to do that to stop people from staying home watching DVDs on plasma screens with a great sound system that costs them less than a thousand bucks?’

‘We’re paying ten or eleven dollars [US] to go to a movie, but if we wait eight or ten weeks we buy the DVD and not only see the film better than we can on 99% of all the cinemas in the world, but get a whole bunch of material we’d never get by going to the theatre.’

McCallum has watched a lot of films on a lot of screens, and he’s very judgemental of the quality of film projection we’re used to.

‘There isn’t a filmmaker out there that doesn’t spend weeks in the lab and months in the mixing room trying to get the best print of their film,’ he says, ‘and then you go down to your local film house and it’s full of weave and dirt; it’s a disgrace.

‘And the more rural you go the worse it is. People will still go, because at the end of the day they don’t care about the photography, they care about the characters and the story. But when they have access to a 100 inch screen and a good sound system at home in the next five years, they’re not going to go as much.’

Sharyn Hamilton sees the rural cinema-going experience at the front lines. As manager of Reading cinemas Bundaberg, she echoes the sentiments that concern most Australians who live away from the large capitals.

As well as saying that Reading has no plans for digital cinema at the moment, she can’t see it any time soon either. ‘Even if it was easy or free [cinemas] wouldn’t do it,’ Hamilton says. ‘The average moviegoer wouldn’t know the difference. ‘Country audiences are totally different than those in the city. Regionally it’s price driven — it depends on payday.’

McCallum disagrees, citing the re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997 (which he also produced), and the fact that the gross was ‘four or five’ times that of analogue cinemas on screens equipped with digital sound — something he attributes to the existence of a digital generation.

‘Their music, their content — everything they mess with on their computer is digital,’ he says. ‘They understand the whole quality issue. Right now the only thing driving them to the movies is the collective experience but that’s not going to last forever.’

The Rising Tide

So there are very compelling reasons both for and against digital cinema across the board. Many more come into play; as it’s the corporate-owned multiplex chains that will be able to afford digital equipment first, will they use the market advantages digital can offer to kill off or swallow up smaller competition (undoubtedly so, if one considers the usual modus operandi of big business)?

Or will the operating costs reach a point where everyone can access it? Will the local family-owned single screen cinema flourish, freed from the shackles of a handful of screenings of Spider Man and able to play cult movies from midnight to dawn without paying a cent for film prints (not only filling dead time with ticket buyers but maybe forging a market reach far beyond their own limited borders)?

Time (along with companies like Kodak and Texas Instruments — who are building and selling the projectors, producers like Rick McCallum — warning of the imminent collapse of the production/distribution/exhibition system and cinema chains getting tiny profits after their high shopping centre lease costs) will tell.