20 years after the big screen shifted to digital, IBC365 looks at how this momentous transition came about.

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Avatar: Blockbuster moment in digital cinema history

“Nobody knows anything,” screenwriter William Goldman famously said about Hollywood’s inability to predict what makes a hit. There was similarly no guarantee of success when the first tentative steps were taken to shift from 35mm film to digital distribution and projection twenty years ago. With IBC highlighting the momentous transition that upended a century of how films were made and seen, with a special panel this year, it’s worth examining just how the big screen went digital.

The starting point was the digital projection of Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace in two multiplexes each in New Jersey and Los Angeles. This was the first time a major Hollywood film had been shown to a paying audience in regular cinemas in digital. The technology was still new and surrounded by uncertainties. Texas Instruments’ Dr Larry Hornbeck, the father of the micro-mirror DLP chip at the heart of most digital projectors, remembers the opening day exhibition at the AMC Burbank 14 theatre as “one of the proudest days in my life.” Hornbeck would go on to be awarded a Sci-Tech Academy Award (Oscar) in 2015 “for his contribution to revolutionizing how motion pictures are created, distributed and viewed.”

But the day before was nerve wracking as Star Wars producer Rick McCallum hosted a ‘shoot-out’ between films and digital projection for press and Hollywood dignitaries. Afterwards McCallum asked the audience, “which side of the screen was digital?” followed by the question “which side of the screen got the colours right?” The first question the audience got wrong, thinking digital was film because it ‘jumped’. “So when McCallum asked his second question, I slumped down in my chair expecting the worst,” Hornbeck remembers, “but I should have had more faith.”

“This is a turning point in film exhibition… Audiences can finally see the film we want them to see.” Rick McCallum, producer

McCallum, Hornbeck then reveals, “answered the second question himself, saying that digital got the colours right, and went on to say “this is a turning point in film exhibition… Audiences can finally see the film we want them to see. We, as filmmakers, have total control.” After that the digital premiere the following day was a comparative breeze. But it would be another decade before digital cinema was ready to take off, thanks to another blockbuster: James Cameron’s Avatar.

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Andy Maltz

10 Years of Preparation
Between these two landmark digital films there was a concerted effort by Hollywood to agree on a set of digital standards as universal as 35mm and a business model to enable the transition. Given past AV standards wars (Dolby-DTS, DVB-ATSC, BluRay-HD-DVD) there was much at stake, but the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) set up by the Hollywood studios came up with a document that formed the blueprint for the technology. Andy Maltz, managing director of the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, pays tribute to this “collection of extremely smart people committed to the transition - at the studios, technology and equipment developers, distribution and exhibition; and just as important, outstanding collaboration to develop a viable set of digital cinema standards to match film’s capability to play on any projector anywhere in the world.

DCI also did the groundwork for the virtual print fee (VPF) plan to fund the shift. “This was a monumental task that exhibition and distribution worked on jointly to create the VPF program. It would have taken many years longer without this,” remembers Christie Digital’s VP of sales, Cinema - Americas Susie Beiersdorf. “Additionally, the various manufacturers stepped up with the engineering and products to physically accomplish the transition. The majority of this transition happened in less than 5 years, and when you consider that with all of the different viewpoints and economic positions, this was very successful transition.”

Susie Beiersdorf

Susie Beiersdorf

VPF funded the transition, but it was the incremental revenue from digital 3D, as demonstrated by Avatar, that catalysed the switch-over. Today, 35mm remains only as an archive medium, for occasional film capture and specialty screenings by celluloid-loving directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Because as Maltz sees it, “the economics and mechanics of digital distribution and projection vs. the photochemical film model were too compelling” for it not to happen.

The Future of Digital
Looking ahead, Maltz cautions that “just because the successful transition was inevitable doesn’t mean continued success is guaranteed.” Beiersdorf concurs that while “on the technology front, digital cinema has opened opportunities for technological advancements that are unprecedented, on the other side, it is difficult for the installed deployment base to keep up.” Both see content, experiences and, in Maltz’s words, artists “always pushing creative boundaries to tell the stories they want to tell,” as the key to keep people going to the movies. “We have an open palette, and now the question is are we utilizing the palette to enhance content, is the content requiring these enhancements, and does the paying public want these enhancements?” asks Christie’s Beiersdorf.

“There has been many a debate on resolution and contrast ratios, but I believe high frame rate or variable frame rate has a very noticeable impact on the viewing experience.” Susie Beiersdorf, Christie Digital

Director Ang Lee will push those creative boundaries this autumn when Paramount Pictures’ Gemini Man is released. The film highlights, what Maltz identifies as “the notable challenges we’re facing now including extending the global standards to adequately support high enough frame rates, brightness, dynamic range and wide enough colour gamuts.” The film will be released in high-brightness 3D, immersive audio and 120fps, with support from the Cinity partnership between Christie, GDC and Huaxia. “I am very excited about the advancements in high frame rate playback,” enthuses Beiersdorf. “There has been many a debate on resolution and contrast ratios, but I believe high frame rate or variable frame rate has a very noticeable impact on the viewing experience.”

To this end the Academy is supporting the next generation of cinema innovation, as well as preserving the legacy of motion pictures, through the Academy Colour Encoding System (ACES) for digital production and archiving standards, and the Academy Software Foundation for a healthy open source production and archiving software ecosystem. “At the end of the day, I believe content is going to drive the success of these innovations,” Beiersdorf predicts, to which Maltz adds, “what could be more exciting than helping artists go where they haven’t gone before?”

Andy Maltz, Susie Beiersdorf and Patrick von Sychowski will be talking to Carolyn Giardina at the “20 Years of Digital Cinema” panel in the RAI Auditorium on 14 September 10:45.