'Digital Cinema for Indies' panel at SXSW
The big challenge right now is that most of the 4000 or so digital screens in the US show studio content, delivered by AccessIT. Those screens aren't very accessible to independent filmmakers and small distributors. And the cost of mastering completed movies to the DCI standard, a file format designed by the major studios, is still quite high. Right now, panelist Russ Wintner said, "there are four labs in LA -- a virtual monopoly -- that can turn out a DCP." (The DCP, or digital cinema package, is the term for the final DCI file that's sent out to theaters, whether via satellite or hard drive.)
So what's the answer for an indie filmmaker looking to get her movie out to theaters in digital form? You could master the movie yourself, commandeer a hard drive, and tote it around to theaters, as panelist Lance Weiler did in 2006 with 'Head Trauma.' (Lance is something of a technical genius, so you may not want to try that yourself.) Or you could work with networks like Emerging Pictures -- which is fairly selective of what it picks up for distribution but has a nice network of digital venues around the country. (Emerging doesn't do four-walling, or screenings paid for by filmmakers that allow them to keep the entire box office take.) A somewhat more open option is Truly Indie, part of the Landmark Theatres empire.
Both Emerging and Truly Indie say that the costs of digital cinema distribution through their networks is usually cheaper than striking a film print.
(Update: This Hollywood Reporter piece, focused on the ShoWest trade show in Vegas, talks a bit about how the three biggest chains are approaching digital cinema.)