Can Hollywood Reinvent Itself in the Age of Digital Cinema?
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A year earlier Quantum Digital had yet to exist. Over the course of 2001 leading up to the launch Odeon Digital Cinema I had quite accidentally become immersed in all things digital. During the summer of 2000 I had produced and directed a 95-minute digital movie titled Jesus The Curry King on a Sony PD150 DVCAM camcorder. I had wanted to distribute it using a network of digital projectors instead of transferring to expensive 35mm film for a traditional print release. But I found a digital network did not exist, indeed hardly anywhere in the world!
On November 17, 2000, to a packed, local audience at Odeon Aylesbury, we decided to try digitally projecting the movie using a hired Sanyo LCD projector and relying on left/right front channel audio. The results were amazing, the audience loved the movie and Aylesbury’s projection staff were also astonished, remarking how clunky film reels were typically brought in and here we were with a little, box-size digital projector showing a feature-length movie to a delighted packed house! I simply could not believe a network of digital systems were not present in cinemas everywhere! I then formed Quantum Digital realising an opportunity existed to digitally distribute not just my own digital feature but other digital features too, including “alternative content” that would be totally new to a cinema audience. When I put the proposition of conducting major digital experiments to Odeon Chief Executive Richard Segal I found a desire to grasp innovation and a sense of ambition that matched my own. The original idea had been to satellite transmit Jesus The Curry King to eight Odeon cinemas across the UK in November 2001 as a trial in the digital delivery and 7-day scheduling of a full-length digital movie. This had not been attempted before in the UK or anywhere in Europe I believe. Even in the US only limited, commercial digital screenings had been undertaken at that time so it was to be a groundbreaking experiment in digital cinema. But it was subsequently decided that our debut event should represent the higher end of the spectrum and not for a DV movie to risk confusing the UK public about what is or isn’t the optimum quality level made possible by digital technology. This was ultimately prudent and even preferential as the issue contributed to a later resolution for how we could include and define mixed formats under the banner of digital cinema, which I will come to later.
But during 2001 there were still numerous other “proofs of concept” waiting to be claimed irrespective of the Curry King experiment and these became our targets instead. So following the success of the one-day demonstration and the Broadway event toward the end of that year it became a logical and symbiotic progression that Odeon and my company progressed to a more closely linked and forward-looking relationship.
My entry into the film industry exposed me to virtually all the major companies and individuals who are the opinion formers and power brokers in the digital cinema world. This opened my eyes to all the preconceptions and expectations in the emerging digital cinema debate. What stunned me most was how a very big presumption was being made by virtually everyone about the role and future of Hollywood in digital cinema. There had been the fantastical idea that a consortium of Hollywood studios would fund the global conversion of theatres from 35mm projection to digital. This concept was being fanned by manufacturers anxious for an entity to buy their equipment and absorbed by the trade press more as a matter of course than with any penetrating insight or alternative vision being applied.
The expectation had been that Hollywood would pioneer digital cinema almost exclusively for its own product, zapping digitised movies into cinemas by satellite or streaming features underground via fibre cables to run on digital projectors instead of antiquated 35mm film reel projectors. Fortunes would be saved from eliminating the expensive process of printing and shipping film reels, quality would be enhanced and piracy would be harder to perpetrate. Inevitably a consensus had begun forming that cinema operators should not be liable for the cost since they were hardly seeing the financial benefits.
But this scenario has a very serious blind spot.
At present it is the exhibitor who purchases the current 35mm film reel projectors, the antiquated but sturdy machinery used in cinemas for almost 100 years since the dawn of Hollywood and celluloid. Despite these film projectors showing Hollywood movies in the majority of cases it is not Hollywood that decides the general access. They have merely been the entity best funded and best organised to exploit it. Digital projection has revolutionised the industry by enabling a wider variety of digital content to access the cinema screen. This has meant other well-funded and well-organised entities can also begin exploiting digital cinema as a form of exhibition where previously they were unable or unwilling due to the cost of film negative. This trend will only grow. These entities will include ambitious start-up companies as well as those with established infrastructures already producing ample digital content from the standard and high definition world.
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