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The industry insists that a prettier picture isn't the only reason bytes are better. Right now, Hollywood might spend over $1 billion a year manufacturing and distributing film copies. Digital could slash that: the prints can be made for a fifth of the cost of celluloid ones and, stored on a hard drive the size of a paperback, they are easier and cheaper to transport than heavy, bulky reels. (Eventually, films could be sent to cinemas by satellite or cable, cutting out transportation costs altogether.) A more diverse range of films could be offered, too, because studios could afford to take on riskier projects, while distributors would be able to send smaller, alternative films to wider audiences. And with up to 10 films sitting on one server, movie houses could change their programs to suit demand. If a showing for a film sells out, add a copy on a second screen; if a film bombs, replace it with anything starring Julia Roberts.
Projector makers and server manufacturers that have been selling equipment in ones and twos for almost a decade look for sales to boom. Belgium's Barco is one of three companies along with Christie and Japan's NEC that almost everyone goes to for digital projection. It has an 80% share of the market in Europe and makes about half of the world's digital cinema systems. But that accounts for just 3% of the company's total sales; display and visual equipment for everything from rock concerts to air traffic control rooms accounted for the rest of the $806 million total for last year. Looking at a potential worldwide market for digital projection equipment of around $12 billion, Stephan Paridaen, head of Barco's media and entertainment division, expects sales to shoot up to 20% of the firm's total by 2008. "Every year I would go in front of my board of directors and say, 'Next year is the year of digital cinema,'" he says. "But now it could actually be next year. The stars are aligning."
Yet even when a sizeable portion of the world's projection systems are converted, they may not be the money spinner everyone hopes, experts warn. "Distribution, storage, content management, delivery of the content in a safe way all of that is far more costly than you would assume," says Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, an economist for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Cinemas that are used to spending minimal amounts on upkeep fixing a belt here, replacing a bulb there may have to pay more for service and upgrades.
Such issues may slow the revolution, but they won't stop it. Industry bosses say they won't give up on the promise of a brighter, faster, cheaper future. So sooner or later, digital is coming to a cinema near you. "You can send a camera to Mars and get perfect shots, but you can't walk into your local cinema and see a film without scratches on it," says Rick McCallum, producer of the Star Wars films. "This is about the quality of the experience, the adventure of going to the movies. If you care about the audience, you'll insist on digital." For fans, filmmakers and the industry, the benefits of going digital are as clear as the image on the screen.