- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

Coming soon to a theater near you: Not necessarily a movie.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Regal Cinemas theater in Ballston, a long line of gray-haired patrons had lined up outside the ticket window, bristling with anticipation and quite uninterested in whatever movie topped the box-office that weekend.

A special re-release of “Cocoon”?

Nope: It was a live performance of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” by New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, beaming via satellite into a high-definition theater in the corner of an Arlington shopping mall.

More than a hundred other theaters across the country were carrying the same simulcast feed — a feat made possible by digital-cinema technology that has generated sharp growth in “alternative in-theater programming.” That’s industry-speak for such non-Hollywood fare as NASCAR’s Daytona 500, the Tour de France, footage from the annual Coachella music festival and, yes, the opera.

Imagine that: Rather than enticing them to stay on the couch or the computer chair, there’s a digital thingamajig that’s actually encouraging human beings to patronize the movie theaters they are perpetually threatening to desert.

“It’s going very well,” says a theater manager at Ballston Common Mall, which will carry the Met’s performance of Puccini’s “Il Trittico” later this month. “All the operas are selling out. I’d say 80 percent are people who haven’t been to this theater before.”

At last month’s ShoWest, the annual industry showcase in Las Vegas, conventioneers got a taste of the Super Bowl in 3-D, according to Brad Brown, president of the marketing company Brown Entertainment Group. “It’s the Wild West for alternative-media sources,” he says. “Nothing is unexpected anymore.”

Before it became an instrument of mass sports-and-entertainment spectacle, digital-cinema technology began more humbly as a vehicle for pre-feature advertising — still its most profitable platform.

Roughly five years ago, Regal Entertainment Group, the nation’s biggest theater chain, began linking its theaters to a digital network that offers short-form segments, broadcast-television content and other, slicker alternatives to the low-budget slide shows of yesteryear.

A parallel development in Hollywood supplied another piece of the puzzle.

Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a joint venture of the seven major movie studios, was formed to avoid the mistake the industry had made in the 1990s with three competing, incompatible brands of new digital audio technology — a patchwork system that created headaches for studios and exhibitors alike.

Digital-projection technology, at its outset, had twice that many formats, according to DCI’s CEO Chuck Goldwater, now an executive at Access Integrated Technologies, a Morristown, N.J.-based digital-cinema software and delivery company.

“This was too important a technological transformation for the industry to let that happen again,” he says.

In July 2005, DCI issued a 160-page doorstopper that provides precise technical specifications on how movies should be distributed to, and projected in, movie theaters — with a guarantee that the digitally-produced images will at least match, if not surpass, the quality of 35-mm film.

With such uniform standards in place, Jonathan Dern, who’d been producing straight-to-DVD animated films under the Kidtoon Films imprint, discovered digital-cinema technology provided both an end-run around the steep costs of producing and shipping 35-mm film prints as well as an opportunity for aggressive niche-marketing.

“Once there was a digital footprint, then it made financial sense for us to have a distribution business,” says Mr. Dern, co-president of the Bigger Picture, a Los Angeles-based company acquired earlier this year by Access Integrated Technologies.

The Bigger Picture started selling child-friendly fare to exhibitors as serial, Saturday-matinee packages, as well as a succession of anime movies. More recently, it has partnered with Fox Faith and Fox Rhythm (both divisions of 20th Century Fox) to distribute movies aimed at Christians and black women.

This fall, the company will serve up footage of 24 bands who performed at last month’s South by Southwest rock festival in Austin, Texas — one of the most coveted tickets in the music business. At the conceptual level, the Bigger Picture is looking at educational programming for children — which could mean field trips to the cineplex.

“We realized that programming was the key,” Mr. Dern recalls. “We’re finding audiences that are underserved, who want a communal experience, who want to come together to watch the kind of entertainment that they want to see.”

Digital-cinema technology holds out the industry-wide promise of radically cheaper distribution costs and a 3-D format that could fetch higher ticket prices. And the benefit to exhibitors of alternative content — more bodies — is immediately tangible.

A sweetener for theater-owners is alternative-content programmers’ “ability to program theaters during times of the day when there are a lot of empty seats,” explains Mr. Dern. “We’re looking to fill those empty seats and allow each theater to say to their communities, ‘This is the type of fare that’s coming.’ ”

Right now, only about 4,000 of 150,000 screens worldwide are digital-compliant, according to a recent Los Angeles Times report. But that number is growing fast. Domestically, about 1,000 screens will be digitally equipped by June.

Initially, companies like the Bigger Picture encountered resistance from some theater owners. “They get it now,” Mr. Dern says.

“Movie theaters across the world are moving toward digital transition,” says Dan Diamond, vice president of National CineMedia Fathom, the company that carries the Metropolitan Opera series as well as a passel of other alternative theater programs, including live Q&A; events with directors M. Night Shyamalan and James Cameron and DVD premieres that feature theater-only content. (“Dirty Dancing” will be dusted off next month for a 20th-anniversary celebration.)

From its mother ship in Centennial, Colo., NCM Fathom beams its programming into the vast Regal Entertainment digital network. Mr. Diamond says approximately 500 of its theater complexes can handle pre-recorded events such as the premiere last October of the “KISSology Vol. 1” concert DVD, which collectively drew more than 35,000 moviegoers.

“When you look at the scope of what we’re doing, there’s really something for everyone,” says Mr. Diamond. “And as we continue to expand our programming base, it’s an exciting time to be in the theater business.”

As with the advent of television in the 1960s and the VCR in the ‘80s, rumors of the death of movie theaters in the age of home theaters and IPods have been greatly exaggerated — again.

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