What's Wrong With Digital Cinema?

august 22, 2005

Forbes ran this article where the author theorizes about what is wrong with digital cinema based on the premise that "movie studios, stung by a long box office slump, piracy, rising production costs and competition by snazzy home theaters, know they need to cut costs to be more profitable. They also know they need to improve the moviegoing experience. " She gives seven decent reasons: The Cost ($100,000 per screen to upgrade), The Viewing Experience (moviegoers can't distinguish a digital film from its 35- or 70-millimeter celluloid predecessor), Goodbye Independent Chains, More Preshow Fluff, The Technology (expect glitches), A Pirate's Best Friend, Theaters vs. Studios (who will pay for the upgrades). All very good reasons for what is wrong with digital film. But, there are some big things that she forgot. Digital or analog, neither solve the problem of bad filmmaking, and there has been a lot of that lately. Lucas shot Revenge of the Sith all digital and some theaters even showed it digitally. Did that make the movie better than The Empire Strikes Back? Hell no. I'd take the analog The Empire Strikes Back (dust on film and all) over Revenge of the Sith. The other thing that digital does not solve in order to "improve the moviegoing experience" is get rid of the rude movie-goers nowadays. You know the behavior quite well and probably have stopped going to the movies because of it: talking, seat kicking, mobile phone ringing, and even conversations on mobile phones. Terrible rude people! And lastly, digital does not solve one problem that has kept my wife and I from going to the theater as much as the studios would like us to: Price. The cost of popcorn, drinks, and two tickets for my wife and I is equal to one month of Netflix service (plus popcorn and drinks). And with Netflix, we don't have to deal with the rude people, the annoying "previews", and we don't feel guilty when we stop watching a really bad movie in the middle. So, my humble suggestion to the movie studios and theaters is for them to spend their money fixing the existing problems before using the money to introduce digital cinema. Here is one way that theaters can start and one way that studios can start: Theaters: Lower the prices for general matinees and create a section of premium theaters for people who are willing to pay more for better seats, no previews, ushers in the theater, and guaranteed seating. Ushers would be necessary for the entire showing of the movie. Equip them with flashlights and the right to boot anyone from the theater for talking or having a mobile phone right. People buying tickets to these premium showings will be under the understanding (and perhaps contract, on the back of the ticket) that they will not talk or otherwise disturb those around them (seems like common sense, but common sense seems to be running low in today's world). The guaranteed seating would be perfect for those of us who hate coming 30 minutes early to line up to get a seat (while marching into the theater like a herd of cattle). And no damned previews, if the movie is slated to start at 8pm, then it better start at 8pm -- not at 8:20pm when the previews finish. Studios: Make better movies! Stop giving us Michael Bay schlock and try to make something worth our time and money. Of course, as I mentioned before, common sense is lacking in today's world. Studios and theaters are guilty of that lack of common sense as much as the people chatting on the phone during a showing. Yes, digital cinema will get pushed through, theaters and studios will rack up millions in debt because of it, and the movie-going experience will still be the same: It will suck. Bad movies, rude people, and high prices. Ticket sales will continue to diminish and studios and theaters will lose lots of money -- lost ticket sales and trying to pay off the "we went digital" debt. In the end, it will be the financial crush of dropping ticket sales that will push the studios and theaters to improve the movie-going experience -- not common sense.