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1997-1998 - 1999 - 2000 - 2001 - 2002+

Remember "New Coke"? Yeah, thought so... that one was definitely from the "what were they THINKING?!" files. New Coke joined such marketing fiascos as one-hour Betamax recording, the Yugo and Burger King?s "Herb" in the basement of pop culture. People didn?t want those things, and they let it be known so. A few weeks later the president of Coca Cola did a backpedal on national television: "old school Coke" would come back, he assured us.

That was 1985. If only another industry would now realize how much it has to gain by reconsidering its policies, here in 2002.

At Celebration II in Indianapolis a few weekends ago, Star Wars producer Rick McCallum hefted along his new toy: a Texas Instruments digital projector, armed with eight minutes of Episode II footage. Until the lights went down I had never seen digital projection before, or really knew what to expect, apart from benefits like error-free repeat showings.

Boy, were we blown away!

Watching a digital projection is like seeing a movie on DVD: once you start, you don?t want to go back to film or VHS. A palette of color came alive in such a vibrant intensity that I?d never seen via old-school film. The amount of detail poured into Episode II was psychotic: stuff you would easily miss on a celluloid print floods the senses on digital. Indeed, if digital projection were more widely available, people would keep coming back to see Episode II, if only to see all the stuff they didn?t "get" the first few times around.

And unfortunately - for the immediate future at least - most people won?t get to experience Episode II in full digital glory. Once again it has to be asked: "what are they THINKING?!" This is the greatest tech innovation for movies since sound... and the theaters are pushing with all the exuberance of an air conditioning salesman in Siberia.

I?m at a loss to understand why that?s so. Digital projection systems are the ideal way to present a movie, and the reasons are considerable...

1. Total fidelity for the viewer
See Episode II as soon as you can, 'cuz that film print is already losing the crispness it enjoyed fresh out of the can. In a few weeks the color and clarity will have faded... if not worse. A month after The Phantom Menace came out my Dad wanted to see what the fuss was about: the movie was good, the bright-green scratch on the last reel was not. As Rick McCallum noted at Celebration II, an unconscionable amount of dough (millions of dollars here, folks) gets poured into color balancing the film before it ships, but it's all for naught after the first several projections.

Entropy isn't the only thing wrecking havoc on your moviegoing experience, either. On the day that The Fellowship Of The Ring came out, a friend wrote me about how Aragorn couldn't be seen watching the hobbits from his dark corner: the theater owner had turned down the juice going to the projector bulb to save a few measly bucks! Such finagling - by thermodynamics or thuggery - won?t happen on a digital system: the movie you see ten weeks from now will be the same movie, in every detail, as is the movie you see tomorrow.

2. Cost-effectiveness for theater owners
Traditional projectors have moving parts, and lots of 'em. They also require considerable maintenance to keep them running. Add in routine expenses like standard projection bulbs and you begin suspecting why the confectionary is so outrageously overpriced.

Digital projection systems have no physical moving parts, except for what you would find in the average hard-drive. Although the initial cost of upgrading to digital might seem prohibitive in the short-term, theater owners will save an enormous amount of money over the long run.

3. Growth of digital production will reinvigorate the art
Digital projection has the potential to open the floodgates on what has become, in large part, a stagnant artform.

For every one George Lucas or Kevin Smith, there are thousands of people across the land who want to follow their dream of being a filmmaker, only to be shut out by a lack of financing for traditional filming. With digital filmmaking, power literally is with the people: would a major studio have financed something so daring as The Blair Witch Project? Yet two guys went to the woods with some relatively inexpensive gear and made a movie that scared the bejeebers out of many of us.

Big-time filmmaking, with very few exceptions, has been strangled into decadence. Digital production is to filmmakers what the Internet is to Matt Drudge: a free and clear channel for the average Joe to make an end-run around the status quo. Push digital projection, and digital production will follow suit. And soon enough, some hotshot rogue will make a movie in his garage that will knock your socks off. Maybe... just maybe... it will make more money than Spider-Man, too!

4. Perfect storage for future generations
One of the greater impetuses for pushing digital projection has to be digital production as the innovation for all future filmmaking. The rationale being: make it available for those who follow after us to enjoy, just as we did.

Most of the effort spent on the Star Wars Special Editions wasn?t getting Han to step on Jabba's tail: it went into cleaning and preserving A New Hope?s initial film stock. If work had not started when it did, a few brief years would have erased the first Star Wars movie?s original source... forever. Apart from second generation prints and derivatives, it would have been as if the 1976 filming never happened.

Thankfully, we'll never fear for that again for Star Wars. But since that first film there have been many others lost forever because of improper storage of film negatives. One of the worst crimes from the historian?s perspective is the loss of a source material, and that?s what all movies are: whether they?re good films or bad, someone invested part of their life into making it. That film speaks volumes about that person. That film says a lot about who we were during that moment in time. Remember how cosmically bad Yor: Hunter From The Future was? Okay, it was hokey... but LOTS of stuff was hokey in 1983. If we can't memorialize it, we should at least laugh at ourselves for how we were then. For the archivist, digital production and projection is the ultimate medium for transmitting movies to our posterity. With digital, a movie can be folded, CGI?d and shipped to Thule and back... and it will still be a faithful capture of those moments before the camera.

For all these reasons and more, digital projection should become the de facto standard for presenting a movie. Except that the theaters are so far very reluctant to make that giant leap forward.

So you and me need to take some baby steps on our own...

What can we do?

That illustrious statesman Tip O?Neill noted that "all politics is local." He was right too: you wield far greater persuasion with the people in your own community than you can with an executive 3,000 miles away.

That?s not to say don't contact the higher-ups on the management totem pole, but the best starting point needs to be around our own homes. The next time you're in the theater (hopefully soon, with Episode II tickets in hand) courteously ask the management if/when an upgrade to digital projection can be expected. Don?t lose heart if the answer is "not at this time." The Great Wall of China was built one brick at a time, and likewise the road to digital is one friendly request after another. Sooner or later, they?ll have to relent... and enjoy all the benefits that come with a digital system.

Once you've touched on all the bases in your hometown, find out who owns those theaters regionally. In all likelihood they'll have an e-mail address, but try not to contact them if you can help it. Experience has taught us that those you are trying to reach are far more greatly impressed by a written letter, or a fax even, than by an e-mail. Exert a little more "force", walk down to the post office and send a friendly letter to your cinema?s operators urging them to switch to digital. A courteous phone call or two might also be in order.

With that done, we can focus on bigger game: convincing the major studios and theatrical chains that digital projection is in their best interest. As of this writing, they?re reluctant to acknowledge this, as reflected in this speech by National Association of Theater Owners' president John Fithian. Write him - politely - and urge NATO to expedite the delivery of digital systems to as many local theaters as possible. His address is:

John Fithian
4605 Lankershim Blvd. #340
North Hollywood, CA 91602
Finally, we need to contact the major studios. Fortunately they?ve assisted us in this regard by pooling their interests into the Motion Picture Association of America. Its president is Jack Valenti, and they can be reached at:
Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
15503 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, California 91436
If you haven?t seen it already, please be aware that an e-mail campaign has begun in earnest, in an effort to convince the higher-ups that we seriously want digital projection. Let them know what we want: it worked for old Coke, it will work for new projection.

In closing, let me say this: no one asked me to write this editorial. I'm not on Lucasfilm?s payroll, nor is anyone else at TheForce.net. The only reason I'm doing this is because nowhere in North Carolina was there a digitally-equipped theater to be found in time for Episode II. By the time Episode III bows, I'd love to see at least one theater in every major city here be totally digital. If those theaters do that, we'll pay good money hand over fist to watch the final chapter of the Star Wars saga in digital. In their theaters. Buying their popcorn and root beer. And we will be happy to do so!

Bring on the digital revolution, people. We want it.

Chris Knight
May 17, 2002

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