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in Filmmaking
on Apr 10, 2012

Over the last century, as Hollywood matured as an industry, it grew increasingly more conservative. The movie business evolved from a maverick entrepreneurial venture, then an innovator introducing groundbreaking new technologies like sound and color, and finally to an evermore-cautious enterprise.

One example of this conservatism is the studios’ reactions to the transition from analog to digital media.

Last year, a coalition led by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the music industry and a handful of digital rights holders, including games companies Sony and Nintendo, launched a major campaign to fight “piracy” by restricting the Internet. However, in the face of strong opposition from the tech industry, free-speech groups and citizens, the legislation was pulled.

Less visible but no less consequential is the campaign being pushed by the studios to control movie theaters in the U.S. and around the world.

In the U.S, as Ira Deutchman points out in his essential reminder, “Indie Theatres Face Digital Mayhem,” the digital theater projection standard, the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), puts a squeeze on both small distributors and, ultimately, indie makers.

Deutchman’s article is a response to an announcement by the studio distribution company, Fox Searchlight, which notified the indie film community that within 18 months it will no longer distribute 35mm film prints. The consequences of this are significant, especially for non-chain theaters.

Deutchman knows what he’s talking about. He’s head of Columbia’s graduate film program and managing director of Emerging Pictures, an digital theatrical programming service employing a lower-cost, non-DCI solution.

The studios, with the backing of the theater exhibitors, represented by their trade association, NATO, developed the DCI standard. As Deutchman points out, “Fully outfitting a single screen with the necessary equipment can cost a minimum of $70,000, and potentially much more for larger auditoriums.”

In addition, distributors will have to pay a VPF (Virtual Print Fee) of $800 for each film shown on a DCI-compliant screen. While this arrangement will likely save studios money on print costs, it will add costs for non-studio distributors. Traditionally, indie distributors have taken advantage of staggered release dates to ship a limited number of prints from a theater in one city to another theater in another city, thus keeping costs down. Now they will have to pay for each digital file distributed, which means less potential return to the maker.

A similar battle over digital theater upgrades is taking place in India, this one over DCI 3D technology. As reported in Forbes, the cost of a DCI 3D upgrade is between $65,000 and $70,000, which may explain why, after 10 years of 3D rollout, only 78 theaters are DCI compliant in India.

To take advantage of the popularity of 3D movies, an India firm, UFO Moviez, has introduced a far cheaper 3D solution, with costs between $13,000 and $21,500. The company is now upgrading 1,500 movie theaters across India with 3D technology and plans to add 1,000 more.

The sclerotic Hollywood studios will likely face continued challenges as the great media transition to digital is implemented. Get ready for more of the Hollywood shuffle.

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David Rosen is a writer and business-development consultant. He is author of the indie classic, Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net. For more information, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com and www.DavidRosenConsultants.com.

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