No more crackles, pops or breaks in the film; no more scratches, fading out or skips — just the movie as filmmakers intended from the first viewing to the last. Two of the 14 screens at Lee Highway Multiplex Cinemas in Merrifield offer moviegoers this experience, showing high-resolution digital movies with clear, crisp pictures.
Movies such as the “Star Wars” series and “Eight Below” attract more viewers to the digital screens than to the regular 35-millimeter film offerings of the same movies, says David Weiner, managing director of Lee Highway Multiplex Cinemas.
“They are really excited about the new format and the picture quality,” Mr. Weiner says, adding that those who are technically minded are drawn to digital. “The crispness of the screen lets them notice every detail,” he says.
More than 100 of the nation’s 37,000 screens have made the conversion to digital cinema from the reel-to-reel version of movie projection. Digital screens in the metro area also are located at AMC Loews Georgetown in Northwest, Loews Rio in Gaithersburg, Crown theaters in Annapolis and Regal Cinemas in Sterling.
“We always want to be on the cutting edge of technology as it develops,” says William J. Towey, senior vice president of operations for National Amusements, a theater company in Dedham, Mass., that owns the Lee Highway theater and operates more than 1,000 screens in the United States.
“We like to present new things to our patrons that enhance the presentation,” he says.
The digital projection system includes the projector, a media player, a central server and three optical semiconductor chips that reflect images onto the screen, which does not have to be upgraded to show digital movies. The server has the capacity to store movies, trailers, advertisements and other content, so the splicing of trailers and ads onto movie reels isn’t necessary. Theater Command Center software installed as part of the system enables staff to manage the showing of movies and ticket sales from a central point.
Texas Instruments in Plano, Texas, developed the semiconductor chips, called DLP (digital light processing) Cinema chips.
The chips, which are the size of a pack of matches, consist of up to 2 million microscopic mirrors that work together to create digital images, says Douglas Darrow, brand and marketing manager for DLP Products in Dallas, a part of Texas Instruments. Light from the projector’s lamp reflects off the mirrors, which rapidly switch on and off to create pixels of light that a projection lens projects onto a screen.
The mirrors move 5,000 times a second, tilting diagonally 12 degrees in either direction, with the “on” position throwing light onto the screen and the “off” position remaining dark, Mr. Darrow says. The projector’s lamp, the same as used in a film projector, emits white light and focuses it into a prism. The prism splits the light into three display colors — red, green and blue. The light is directed to one of the three DLP Cinema chips, which also are dedicated to the three colors, and is combined in different proportions under the control of the movie’s image file, he says.
“What you’re doing essentially is painting with light,” Mr. Darrow says, adding that the DLP projection system can produce a range of 35 trillion colors. “In principal, it’s similar to how 35-millimeter film systems work, where you’re passing light through a piece of film,” he says.
But every time the thousands of feet of film are mechanically pulled through a projector, the film gets dirty, is scratched, fades and wears out, Mr. Darrow says.
“With a digital projector, that doesn’t happen. The way it looks opening night is the way it looks at the dollar theater,” he says.
The digital projection system presents the movie as the filmmaker intended, says Rick McCallum, who produced the “Star Wars” films.
“Film is a chemical process that changes from one minute to the next in the way film is developed. The process of creating 10,000 prints is so fast, you never can deal with quality,” says Mr. McCallum, producer for Lucasfilm Ltd., George Lucas’ San Francisco-based film and entertainment company.
“With digital, the quality remains the same. It has information imbedded in it that is reproduced exactly. … There’s no weaving. There’s no scratching. The color symmetry is always the same.”
Another advantage to the digital projection system is the choice of content it allows, says Bud Mayo, chairman and chief executive officer of Access Integrated Technologies, Inc., better known at Access IT, in Morristown, N.J. Digital screens have the capability to show 3-D versions of movies, along with concerts, corporate and sporting events, and foreign-language specialty movies that can increase revenue opportunities, he says.
“It changes movie theaters to entertainment venues,” Mr. Mayo says.
Access IT plans to install 4,000 screens in the United States and Canada over the next two years and another 6,000 by 2009. Seven major Hollywood studios formed the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) consortium to set technical standards for digital cinema that were published in mid-2005 and selected Access IT to do the installations, he says. Access IT will receive payment through a variety of fees, such as transport fees for delivering digitized movies and alternative content to the theaters and virtual print fees paid by the studios for any first-time showings of movies.
The studios agreed to absorb some of the costs of the conversion to digital to save in the expense of making and delivering reels of film prints, Mr. Darrow says. To get digital films to the theaters, image files for the movies are transmitted digitally over fiber-optic lines or satellite and downloaded to a hard drive, he says.
“This is a way to balance it out, to put some of the burden on [studios] who are saving money by not making prints,” says James Mathers, president of Digital Cinema Society, a nonprofit educational cooperative based in Studio City, Calif.
The cost for equipping a screen with a digital projection system is about $100,000, Mr. Mathers says.
The projection system is something National Amusements would like to offer at all of its theaters, Mr. Towey says.
“We know as a practical matter, it will be several years for a complete conversion,” he says.