FOUNDED IN 2002, the DCI's main objective was to establish a digital cinema framework that would ensure a universally standardized model for technical performance, reliability and quality control. With only approximately 600 screens installed worldwide to date, it is still unclear what impact digital cinema will have on the global film market. What is certain is that, like many technologies preceding it, the introduction of digital cinema will polarize the international industry and generate heated debate about its value.
Since the Internet revolutionized mass communication, major technological developments have been accompanied by utopian visions of social change. But for all the predictions of a paperless society and the global village, new technologies often fail to meet such grandiose expectations. For the proponents of digital cinema--most of whom, especially the motion picture consortiums and digital technology giants, have a vested financial interest in its implementation--this new technology is now capable of ending celluloid's 100 year reign over film production, distribution and exhibition. One of the most famous advocates for conversion from celluloid to digital is Star Wars creator George Lucas. Before releasing Star Wars: Episode 11--Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002), Lucas declared that the film would only be screened in cinemas equipped with digital projection facilities. But with so few cinema screens fitted out for digital delivery, Lucas later swallowed his words and released the film globally on 35mm film prints.
In September 2005, the Digital Cinema Initiative aims to deliver recommendations for industry-wide standards, at which stage the official rollout of the new technology will commence. Currently there are only two screens in Australia with high-end digital projection facilities: Hoyts at Fox Studios in Sydney and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne. For Andre Bernard, ACMI's Cinema Technical Manager, digital cinema is a complex concept and one that is often misunderstood:
There are so many tags for digital cinema, such as e-cinema and d-cinema and at the moment it can refer to everything from a $10,000 LCD projector to a high-tech plant valued at half a million dollars and everything in between. It is this quantum gap and the loose use of language that causes much of the confusion.
For Bernard, Hoyts is the only digital cinema in this country that is permanently set up to exploit the possibilities of the technology by delivering digital content via a server. Bernard sees the slow development of digital cinema in Australia as a combined result of the lack of technical standards, the small market for manufacturers to sell into, the lack of digital features available, and the high costs of conversion, particularly for independent and regional exhibitors.
Robert Ward, an independent exhibitor with interests in hundreds of screens across Australia, including Australian Country Cinemas and Cmax Entertainment, believes he has a solution. Over the past seven years, Ward has followed the developments in digital cinema with great interest and is currently assisting Cinematica, a US/UK-based organization, with the rollout of digital cinema in Australia. Local exhibitors, however, are not as enthusiastic, with many believing it is the distributors and film studios that stand to benefit from the conversion.
One of the biggest points of contention has been who will pay for the costs of hardware, installation and maintenance of digital cinema. Cinematica has devised a business model that will see these costs shared between the various stakeholders, with the exhibitor bearing the smallest load. Cinematica is proposing to fit out Australian cinemas with digital projection plants valued at US$150,000, which will be then leased to distributors on a'screen week' basis. Under this new model, for example, 20th Century Fox would rent a cinema from Rialto Cinemas for one screen week at $300-$350, approximately the same costs the distributor would be paying to the studio for a 35mm print. …