EXCLUSIVE: Producer Neal Edelstein (Mulholland Dr., The Ring, The Invisible) and his Hooked Digital Media partners have their sights on the future of content consumption. They’re banking on it moving to the micro-screen. Their new digital production shingle will focus solely on making original filmed content designed to be viewed on tablet and mobile devices. The first app, the ghost story Haunting Melissa, launches this spring. Edelstein in 1997 formed The Picture Factory with David Lynch before branching off with his own Macari/Edelstein Filmed Entertainment with Mike Macari. He’ll serve as President of the “next-generation production company”. Aboard as advisors are Myspace co-founder Aber Whitcomb and investor Kevin Washington. “We are not taking movies and stuffing them inside an app; we are crafting stories that embrace app technology and the viewing habits of the new generation of consumers”, Edelstein said in a statement. “Delivery direct to tablet and mobile devices is going to be the most personal form of storytelling”.
This is a fun announcement for the exhibition industry in the lead-up to next week’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas. Cinedigm and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) say that the company will help more than 100 drive-in movie theatres make the transition from 35 mm celluloid to digital projection. It will work with NATO’s Cinema Buying Group (CBG), which helps independent theater owners. “Cinedigm and NATO’s collaborative efforts – similar to our CBG program for traditional movie theatres — have once again played a significant role in bringing these theatres into the digital age,” says NATO chief John Fithian. For the digital projection to work in drive-ins, the groups needed to team up with the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association and secure some exceptions to the Digital Cinema Initiatives specifications for the technology. It means that “the unique movie-going experience outdoor exhibitors offer will continue for generations to come,” says UDITOA President John Vincent Jr. Cinedigm says it hopes to sign additional drive in theaters next week to preserve what VP Business Affairs Alison Choppelas calls “such an important piece of Americana.”
The MPAA is lobbying for movies shipped abroad in “digital cinema packs,” which have replaced traditional film reels, included under duty-free provisions of an expanded international trade agreement. The digital movie media didn’t exist when the first International Trade Agreement was negotiated in 1996. MPAA EVP Greg Frazier today told the U.S. International Trade Commission that last year there were more digital screens around the world than traditional screens, something that has dramatically cut the cost of distributing movies. Frazier suggested that “iconic spools of film … will soon be relegated to the Smithsonian.” Including the digital cinema packs in an expanded duty-free accord should prevent costly customs problems associated with film reels, he said. In some countries, customs officials determine movie tariffs based on the length of the film. “We were shut out of one market for six months because of various machinations of customs officials.” Talks among the 70 current member countries of the ITA pact are expected to begin next year in Geneva.
Time is running out for theaters that haven’t made the switch to digital projection. Studios’ use of conventional 35 mm prints “is projected to cease in the United States and other major markets by the end of next year, with global cutoff likely to happen by the end of 2015,” according to the latest IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service report. There’s still a ways to go: The firm says that 51.5% of worldwide screens had digital projectors at the end of 2011, an increase of 82% from 2010. But IHS notes that soon it won’t be sufficient to have a digital projector. Director Peter Jackson is lobbying for theater owners pay for the software upgrade needed to show his upcoming The Hobbit films at 48 frames a second. That’s the speed at which he’s shooting the movies, up from the conventional 24 frames. At the end of 2011 about 50,000 of the world’s 63,825 digital screens, including 19,000 in the U.S., would be capable of being upgraded. Theaters with Series 2 DLP and Sony projectors will be able to accommodate Jackson. Pressure to upgrade won’t abate after The Hobbit. James Cameron plans to shoot his follow-ups to Avatar at 60 frames a second. (Incidently, IHS’ figure on the worldwide total of digital venues is slightly higher than the 2011 tally from the MPAA, which counted 62,684, of which 44% were in the U.S. and Canada.)
Digital cinema has overtaken film a lot sooner than many people might have predicted before Avatar was released, but it was probably inevitable. At latest count almost two-thirds of all domestic screens used digital projectors by the beginning of the year. That’s 25,570 screens out of a total 39,641 or 64.5%, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. Roughly half — 12,620 — of those digital screens were equipped to show movies in 3D and 244 of those were IMAX installations. The total of individual theaters was almost 5,800, and 3,028 of those were partly or completely digital. And counting. Back in mid-2009 as James Cameron was preparing to unleash Avatar on the moviegoing public in December, only a few more than 1,600 screens in the US were equipped for digital 3D as of July out of a total of some 38,000 indoor screens at roughly 5,400 locations. By the time Avatar opened there were roughly 3,000 3D digital screens. In little more than two years, the number of 3D screens has quadrupled — propelled at least initially by Avatar’s success.
Globally, digital projection was predicted to overtake film early in 2012 — if it hasn’t already — and by the end of the year 63% of all cinema screens around the world will be digital, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service. By 2015 IHS predicts that 35mm theatrical film will amount to a niche format with just 17% of global movie screens. Art houses and independent theaters will struggle to cope with the cost of conversion. According to NATO, Canada has 1,848 digital screens, and the rest of the world has 38,874. That makes a global total of 66,292 digital screens. Texas Instruments, which licenses DLP technology used in most digital cinema projectors, in early December boasted installation of more than 51,000 DLP branded digital screens worldwide — nearly double the previous year. Slightly more aggressive than IHS Screen Digest, the company predicts a full global transition to digital by the end of 2015. Conversion to digital has accelerated in Europe, China, Russia, Latin America, India, Africa, Australia and the Asia Pacific region.
Dolby Laboratories has hired Doug Darrow to be SVP of the company’s cinema business, charged with developing and executing strategies to build Dolby’s leading cinema technology platforms. Darrow spent 24 years at Texas Instruments, where he most recently oversaw the development and marketing of DLP Cinema. There, he helped spearhead the exhibition industry’s transition to digital presentation and distribution with the deployment of digital cinema projectors and 3D d-cinema presentation, including on the first d-cinema release of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. He most recently was president and CEO of start-up Laser Light Engines, which is developing laser-illumination systems for high-brightness projectors. “Doug is a strong leader with a distinguished track record, and his broad experience makes him uniquely suited to realize the full potential of Dolby’s cinema business,” said Dolby EVP Sales and Marketing Ramzi Haidamus, to whom Darrow will report. “His vision supported the growth and adoption of digital cinema, one of the industry’s most important and successful transitions.”