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Consumer Reaction To Digi-Projection

I am re posting here a small portion of a lenthy piece from the Village 
Voice's new competition in NY--The New York Press---
It is by Geoffry Cheshire and is about the advent of Digital Projection 
It received many comments pro and con in the last week or so since the two 
part anti-digital projection piece was published..

please forgive the Corel OCR .....

  You are standing of a summer's day on a lovely beach, and you are doing 
what mil- lions of others just out of eyeshot are doing. You are looking at 
the sand  going between your toes. You are perusing the broken shells just 
beyond your toes and the foamy wavelets curling against the shore nearby. You 
are sighing contented- ly, enjoying the halo of warmth the sun has planted on 
your head. You are not look- 
  ing up. This is curious, because if you were looking up you 
   would notice something: there's a tidal wave the size of 
  the Empire State Building curved directly overhead, about 
  to crash down and change you and the world you live in irrevocably, 
forever. It's funny that people don't look up. Maybe it has to do with the 
millennium. Maybe 
  people are afraid that if they look up, or talk about what they think might 
be about to  happen, then the next couple of years will turn out to be 
dauntingly weird and, well, 
  millennial. I haven't read any articles concerning the enormous changes 
about to t 
  occur in our media environment, which is why I'm writing this one. Of 
course, there's   one reason those articles may be so scarce: at the moment, 
most media companies 
  are far less interested in publicizing the impending changes than they are 
in posi- 
  tioning themselves to take advantage of them. But then again, maybe it's 
simply that 
  people are skittish about what I'm proposing to do here   look up, to 
consider the 1 
  power and eflects of that wave's impact. For the space of this article, 
three terms that we normally use interchangeably are 
  defined separately:  
  Fi(m refers to the traditional technology of motion pictures: the cameras, 
project I tars celluloid, lights and other gear that have been responsible 
for every movie you've ever seen in a theater. Prognosis: Sudden death. In a 
very short amount of time, film in theaters will disappear, replaced by 
digital projection systems and, soon enough, by productions that don't 
involve celluloid even at the shooting stage. This transformation will 
effectively mean that a medium that has been ubiquitous in the 20th century 
basically won't exist beyond the first few years of the 21st. Movies here 
refers to motion pictures as entertainment. You know   movies. Everyone loves 
movies. Prognosis: Forced mutation. For one thing, movies will no longer be 
the dominant attractions at movie theaters; they'll have lots of noisy com- 
petition. They'll also be heavily affected by the technologies that succeed 
film, name- ly television and computers. Movies are forever, basically, but 
movies after the 20th century will have neither the esthetic singularity nor 
the cultural centrality that they presently enjoy, Cinema refers to movies 
understood (and practiced) as an art. The cream of the medium's expressive 
history has generally equated with the excellence of individual creators, 
from Chaplin and Keaton to Fassbinder and Kiarostami. Prognosis: Rapid decay. 
Cinema reached its point of maximal definition a couple of decades back, and 
has been slowly dissipating as a cultural force since. The end of film will 
help hasten cinema toward past-tense museum status   where it will "thrive" 
in the way Renaissance painting now does. The most immediate of these changes 
  the replacement of film in movie the- aters   is due to get a lot of media 
attention in the near future, and you can count on much of that to be of the 
gee-whiz, isn't-technology-amazing variety so beloved of entertainment 
writers, scoop-hungry editors and, presumably, gadget-loving Americans. I 
doubt that many negative notes or calls for resistance will be heard, or that 
the overthrow of film by television   which is what this amounts to   will be 
related ed to a dissolution of cinema esthetics and the enforced close of 
cinema's era in the his- tory of technological arts. The latter, which has 
implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate 
subject here. But let's take one thing at a time. 
  The Death of Film 
  Needless to say, no one asked if you want- ed this to happen. There were no 
nationwide polls inquiring, "Would you prefer it if film disappeared from 
movie theaters and was replaced by video projection?" Consumers didn't 
complain and start to stay away from theaters because of those quaint old 
celluloid images. On the contrary, movie attendance is at an all-time high, 
and there are lots of indications that viewers want movies to retain the 
particular visual textures associated with film. The change is occurring for 
the usual reasons: the technology is there, and money. Ir, some ways, it's 
astonishing the transfer took this long. George Lucas, one of its prime 
proponents and sponsors, may be the prophet of consummate kiddie banality, 
but about this he is not wrong: film, like the tele- graph and the Gatling 
gun, is 19th-century machinery. From the time photography got a foothold in 
the 1850s, inventors were hustling to find the means to allow images to move. 

  The crucial device was hit upon by Thomas Edison's ingenious assistant, 
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, in the early 1890s: a strip of perforated 
celluloid, coated with photograph- ic emulsion and moved through the camera 
by means of sprockets. Once George Eastman was commissioned to provide Edison 
with film stock in bulk, motion pictures, as an industrial enterprise, were 
set to roll. The erroneous mythology of the medium, sent into history books 
by the tirelessly self- promoting French, has it that film became the movies 
one day in December of 1895 at the Grand Cafe in Paris, when the Lumiere 
broth- ers held their first public projections. In fact (as we discussed here 
at the time of the actu- al centenary), by that time movies had been 
displayed in several American cities. The very first projections for the 
paying public were held on May 20, 1895, at a storefront on lower Broadway ia 
New York City, by a former Confederate officer, Woodville Latham, and his 
sons Gray and Otway. The Lathams bene- fited from the help of Dickson, who 
  lighted from Edison because the Wizard of Menlo Park didn't see the 
  commercial advantage of taking film out of single-payer peepshow devices 
and throwing the images onto a screen. He soon changed his mind. Camera, 
projector, celluloid: the basic technology hasn't changed in over a century. 
Sure, as a form of expression, film underwent a radical alteration with the 
addition of sound, but that and other developments   color, widescreen, 
stereo, etc.  were simply embellishments to a technical paradigm that has 
held true since photographic like- nesses began to move, and that everyone in 
the world has thought of as "the movies"   until this summer. The new digital 
projection sys- tems resemble the old method in that they project images onto 
the screen from a booth behind the audience. But the images aren't produced 
by light shining through an unfurling series of photo- graphic transparencies 
on celluloid. There is no film, which alone saves distributors the costs of 
prints (a couple of thousand each), plus shipping, handling and storage. It 
also eliminates scratch- es, jumps and the other physical imperfections of 
film. When the digi- tal approach finally takes over at theaters, the "films" 
being shown at a given 'plex will be beamed in by coded satellite signal, 
which will allow distributors to supply as many   or as few   theaters as 
they like, with minimal advance planning and maximal scheduling flexibility. 
For the time being, most movies will still be shot on film, primarily because 
audiences are used to the look, but everything else about the process will 
be, in effect, televi- sion   from the transmission by satellite to the 
projection, which lor all intents and pur- poses is simply a glorified 
version of a home video projection system. The original pic- ture is 
converted to digital information, which reconverts as three colors that are 
beamed through the projector's lenses and recombined on the screen. In late 
June, 1999   a date to set beside May, 1895, among little-heralded sea 
changes in the technoio- gies of popular culture   the new system went on 
display in Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York, in theaters showing Star 
Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace and An Ideal Husband. (Disney's digital 
Tarzan debuted last Friday, 3uly 23.) What does the brave new world look 
like? Well, as a self-confessed videophobe, I must say I was surprised. I 
went to see An Ideal Husband and thought the projection looked great   
certainly it did compared to my worst fears, which were along the lines of a 
hazy big-screen tv in a sports bar, blown up to unbearable size. In fact, I'd 
bet that most ordinary moviegoers wouldn't know the dif- ference if you 
didn't tell them there was one. I actually preferred it to the same movie on 
celluloid, which l thought was overlit and had oversaturated colors. (Was 
Husband shot with digital projection in mind, making the film version 
intentionally a bit inlerior? I'm sure Miramax will never 
   tell.) The digital image feels slightly softer and gassier than the more 
defined textures of film. The colors I saw were a mite cool, with gentle 
blues predominating. But the overall effect was pleasant, and far less 
noticeable than I had anticipated. In short, I'm now sure this thing will 
fly. There'll be no uprising, no mass shrieks of outrage at the change. 
Digital will sneak into theaters largely unnoticed, perhaps even wel- comed. 
But should it? So far, celluloid's only Horatio-at-the-bridge is Roger Ebert, 
who at this year's Cannes Film Festival started sounding the alarm. Ebert is 
concerned that the technological revolution is being rushed into place 
without the indus- try having done (or made public) any studies about its 
likely effects, especially on the psy- chological level. He mentioned data 
(cited in 3erry Mander's famous polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of 
Television) indicating that film creates a beta state of alert reverie in the 
brain, where tv provokes an alpha state of passive suggestibility. Is it 
possible, Ebert wonders, that the subliminal catnip that people value in 
movies is being thrown out with the celluloid, and that audi- ences will soon 
abandon digital movies because they're too much like tv? I admire Ebert for 
shouting "stop! look~" when nobody else is doing it, and when the gigantic 
corporate interests behind digital are, as always, so careless of mere 
mortals and petty matters like human consciousness. Additionally, I share 
Ebert's visceral emotional reaction against film   this magical thing that 
has been with us our entire lives   being suddenly swept off the cultural 
table. But I also think his campaign and the impetuses behind it are mostly 
emotional, and I don't think they stand a shred of a chance of stemming the 
digital tide. That does not, how- ever, mean that I'm basically sanguine 
about the impending conversion. Not at all.
  How long will it take? The estimates I've read range from two to 10 years, 
but I would bet that it's on the lower side and that it will happen very 
suddenly. The main factors like- ly to slow it somewhat are financial. 
Exhibitors are presently undertaking huge expenditures to convert trom 
multiplexes to megaplexes (those "stadium seating" behe- moths beloved of 
mid-America), and it may be a while before they can assemble the scratch for 
a new set ot mammoth outlays. Then will come their pitched battle with dis- 
tributors over how to share the expenses of converting to digital, which will 
be a huge economic boon to the studios. The ultimate outcome of this 
struggle, though, is easy to foresee: the costs will be passed along to the 
consumer. Get ready for $20 movie tickets and $10 bags of popcorn. Once 
digital projection comes to stay, cer- tain temporary confusions will be 
inevitable. Consider the nomenclature, for one. There'll be film festivals, 
film schools, film partner- ships and so on and so forth   none of which will 
have even the remotest thing to do with any actual film. Film reviews? Film 
critics? Don't get me started. And, for a while, people will go on thinking 
they're looking at films because, for a while, there's a sense in which they 
will he. Movies will be shot on celluloid, for that great old filmic look 
that even dramatic shows on tele- vision still prize. But I'll bet the 
preference for that look will begin to fade fairly quickly. A few films will 
come along that, as Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration did last year, make 
low-budget digital video shooting look really cool, and thereafter it will 
become stan- dard for most features. Shooting on film will he reserved for 
certain arty, historical or deliberately archaic productions, and even those 
will gradually dwindle until digital's domain finally encompasses all. How 
will the shift affect movies? That's the crucial question, after all. The 
little I've seen written on the subject so far tends to avoid everything but 
vague assurances that movies will be much the same, only better-looking, and 
that the radical economies of digital shooting will allow amazingly 
low-budget pro- ductions to jump from someone's backyard to the world's 
screens in a flash. My own prognostications are much different, and they 
explain why I'm not jumping with joy at the digital revolution's approach. 
What will people see at the local megaplex after the revolution? My guess is 
that the choices will include attractions such as...Monday Night Football, 
The Home Shopping Network Super Sale, the NBA play- offs, Seinfeld's last 
episode, Britney Spear.s with the Rolling Stones (still touring, thanks to 
cryogenics) at the Hollywood Bowl, Jerry Springer'.s National Town Meeting, 
The Western Hemisphere Championship Wrestling Finals, Prince William's 
wedding, The Three Tenors Do MTV's Spring Break, etc...and, oh yeah, the 
movie of the week. Those things are all television, of course, but that 
shouldn't surprise you. The general attributes of traditional movies 
(fictional sto- ries, shot at distant locations using scripts and directors 
and actors) had everything to do with the peculiarities and limitations of 
film as a technology. Digital will change all that in radical ways. In fact, 
it strikes me that, after the revolution, the two most important factors for 
movie programmers will be 1) that digital theaters will have all the 
capacities of television, including live transmission and 2) the need to give 
people something sufficient- ly different from the home tv experience to 
justify the admission charge. If those things suggest a new definition of 
"cross purposes," I'll wager that their reconciliation will alter what's 
offered in movie theaters in ways that moviegoers today can scarcely imagine. 
Pondering digital's effects, most people base their expectations on the 
outgoing tech- nology. They have a hard time grasping that, after film, the 
"moviegoing" experience will he completely reshaped by   and in the image 
  of   television. To illustrate why, ponder this: if you were the executive 
in charge of exploit- ing Seinfelcfs last episode and you had the chance to 
beam it into thousands of theaters and charge, say, 25 dollars a seat, why in 
the hell would you not do that? Prior to digital theaters, you wouldn't do it 
because the tech- nology wouldn't permit it. After digital, such 
transpositions will be inevitable because they'll be enormously lucrative. 
And tv isn't the only technology that will affect the new theatrical 
paradigm. Here's another possibility, based on a fairiy rudi- mentary 
expansion of what's already avail- able technically. It shouldn't be 
difficult to install automated cameras and mics in most movie theaters. So 
let's say you go to see one of the new, theatrical specials like, say, 
Oprah's America. Thanks to the new technol- o~, you can punch a hutton in the 
console on your armrest, and if the host chooses you, you'll be able to talk 
to Oprah or Dave from your seat, live, as people in theaters around the 
country watch you and hope for their own moment in the limelight. That's 
right   it's that newfangled interac- tiuity you've heard so much about. All 
the kids are grooving on it, thanks to computers and the Internet. Think 
those same kids won't dig   or for that matter, demand   interactive 
experience at the movies? Of course they will, and two-way national talk 
shows will be the least of it. The door will be open to feature- length 
interactive video games, simulated thrill rides, VouWlve4t Mysteries Meet 
Your Favorite Supermodel, You in the Pilot's Seat: Calf War Reenactments, 
etc. At telethon time, Jerry Lewis will be the happiest man in showbiz. In 
the early days, of course, the movie experience was much like this. Not only 
were films slotted into vaudeville bills between braying comics, dancing 
mules and third-rate acrobats   and you could talk back to every- thing on 
the program: call it pre-electronic interactivity   but also the people who 
sup- plied the movies tried everything they could think of, from scenes of 
distant countries to fake train trips to in-camera magic tricks to historical 
re-creations. In the 50s, when the movie business was treating tv much as 
America treated the Soviet Menace, a similar anarchy again reigned briefly, 
producing 3-D glasses, Cinerama, Smell-0-Vision and William Castle-style 
stunts. Immediately after digital's arrival, expect another spell of wide- 
open experimentation until the new medi- um's modalities and audience tastes 
are sussed and locked in. When the dust settles, I'll bet one thing about our 
media experience of the last half- century comes close to reversing itself. 
Typically, people now watch tv as if in a group, even when alone, and view 
movies as individuals, even when accompanied by oth- ers. That is, they'll 
talk, hoot, flip the bird at the tube, but sink into mesmerized solitude 
belore the movie screen. Digital may well turn that around. People wanting to 
watch serious movies that require concentration will do so at home, or 
perhaps in small, specialty the- aters. People who want to hoot and holler, 
flip the bird and otherwise have a fun communal experience   courtesy of 
Oprah or Scream: In(eractive, say   will head down to the local enormoplex. 
Other technological changes will figure into that reversal, too. In the time 
it takes for digital to transform theaters, home viewing will also be 
transformed. HDTV and wall-sized screens will finally become realities, and 
all manner of movies will arrive in pristine con- dition over the phone wires 
at your beck and call. 

Thanks to Complete Post/Bob Blanks for support in 1999
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