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
Kingís "Herb" in the basement of pop culture. People didnít 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 donít want to go back to film or VHS. A palette of color
came alive in such a vibrant intensity that Iíd 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 didnít "get" the first few
And unfortunately - for the immediate future at least - most people
wonít 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.
Iím at a loss to understand why thatís so. Digital projection
systems are the ideal way to present a movie, and the reasons
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 -
wonít 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 wasnít
getting Han to step on Jabba's tail: it went into cleaning and
preserving A New Hopeís initial film stock. If work had not started
when it did, a few brief years would have erased the first Star Wars
movieís original source... forever. Apart from second generation
prints and derivatives, it would have been as if the 1976 filming
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
historianís perspective is the loss of a source material, and thatís
what all movies are: whether theyíre 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, CGIíd 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 OíNeill 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
Thatís 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. Donít 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, theyíll
have to relent... and enjoy all the benefits that come with a
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 cinemaís 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, theyíre 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:
4605 Lankershim Blvd. #340
North Hollywood, CA 91602
Finally, we need to contact the major studios. Fortunately theyíve
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 havenít 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
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 Lucasfilmís 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.
May 17, 2002