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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Public radio piece: Digital cinema, James Cameron, `Chicken Little'

Boston's NPR station ran this piece on digital cinema yesterday, `Coming to a Theater Near You.' Andrea Shea, the producer, sets up the story by observing that this year's box office is down eight percent compared to 2004, and that recent surveys have reported that people prefer watching movies on their couch at home. Could `Chicken Little' in digital 3-D, and later digital releases, turn that tide? (The story starts about 35 seconds into the RealAudio clip, after some news about George W. Bush.)

Andrea and I spoke on Tuesday, and I'm the story's first soundbite, followed immediately by James Cameron. Cameron says that digital will give audiences a more consistent, high-quality experience than celluloid, and he uses `Titanic' as an example. "The film outlived its technical medium. It played in theaters so long that the prints fell apart," he says. "They got scratched beyond recognition - all of the prints."

Shea visits the great Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, whose owner says he's planning to stick with celluloid - and his 1950s-era projectors. He worried about the reliability of digital equipment. "We've got reliable equipment that has little failure to it, so we're going to stay with it until we're forced to go in a different direction," says Joe Zina. But I wonder if digital distribution will give Zina a wider range of movies to choose from, within a year or two - and possibly also more flexibility to play more movies (not to mention alternative content like live events, lectures, and concerts) at various times during the week.

Michael Karagosian, a tech consultant to the National Association of Theater Owners, thinks that audiences aren't impressed by today's 2K digital projectors. "No one reports that audiences walk away enthralled with what they've seen, so it doesn't give a `wow' factor, unfortunately." He does think that could change as digital projection improves - but I'd underline Cameron's point about projection quality over time: almost no movie-goers have ever seen a 2K digital projection compared side-by-side with a celluloid print that has been playing for a month. That difference, my friends, is truly a wow factor.

Film conservator Julie Buck of the Harvard Film Archive, though, believes that seeing scratches, jiggle, and cue marks on the screen must be part of the movie-going experience. (Can you imagine her arguing that color was not intended to be part of movies?) "Digital is almost flawless to the point of being kind of freaky," she says. Digital lacks the nuance of celluloid, and the blacks and grays aren't quite right, she points out. Besides, she says, film is the medium the director shot his picture in. (Increasingly, not.)

I don't think anyone should force the Coolidge or the Harvard Film Archive to switch to digital - but I suspect they'll build up their digital capabilities pretty quickly over time. I do wish that the story had quoted a theater-owner who feels that digital can enhance his business - but I know there's only so much time in the world of radio, and this is already a pretty thorough piece.

Two quick corrections. In the intro, host Robin Young says there are 360,000 screens in the US. It's more like 36,000. And Shea says that audiences who go to see `Chicken Little' in 3-D will wear glasses like the ones they wore back in the 1950s. Actually, these ones have polarized lenses, rather than red-and-blue, which offer a much crisper picture.


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