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Coming soon: A digital theater near you

"The Departed"
Warner Bros. transmitted a digital version of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” from Los Angeles to Japan via fiber-optic lines
TOKYO (TR) – Even as Tokyo electronics stores seemingly unveil flashy new flat-panel HDTV models on a weekly basis, conventional multiplexes are not preparing to shutter their doors. Instead, they are contemplating a digital age themselves.

Warner Bros. Entertainment last month continued with the digital cinema experiment “4K Pure Cinema” by transmitting a digital version of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” from Los Angeles to Japan via fiber-optic lines. D-cinema’s sharp images and multichannel digital sound combine to give theatergoers a new experience.

“The major benefits of d-cinema are in the product’s consistency and higher quality,” explains Wendy Aylsworth, vice president in the technical operations division at Warner Bros. “The image is static and does not weave as film does; dirt and scratches compounded into film over many repeated showings are non-existent; and the available color spectrum is wider, providing more visible colors to the eye.”

The technology is as specified by Digital Cinema Initiatives, a consortium comprising industry heavyweights that also include Fox and Disney. DCI compliance requires projection with 4K resolution (4,096 pixels by 2,160 pixels). Flat-panel HDTVs currently utilize 2K (1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels), a resolution that is one-eighth that of 4K.

The experiment began in 2005 with a screening of Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” brought to Japan by the original testing team that included Warner Bros. Entertainment, Warner Entertainment Japan, exhibitor Toho Cinemas and the Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Group. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount and exhibitor Warner Mycal joined last year.

The process begins with the transmission of film data from Hollywood to distribution centers operated by the NTT Group. Subtitling and dubbing are applied before the data is routed through NTT East’s fiber network to the three participating theaters in Tokyo. (Two theaters in Osaka are served by NTT West lines.)

The DCI mandate also requires film data “packages” to be secured with encryption under the 128-bit AES (advanced encryption system) standards for thwarting piracy, which Hollywood estimates to total $6 billion annually. Theaters are given “keys” to open the packages.

To move this project beyond the experimental stage will require the purchase of expensive digital equipment. But Warner Bros. estimates that prices for the outfitting of a theater should drop by 30%-50% from trial levels once production volumes equivalent to a countrywide deployment are reached.

For Japanese productions, digital media has mainly been limited to museum and art-related events. Of the roughly 3,000 theaters in Japan, digital screens represented less than 50 at the end of 2005.

But the 4K Pure Cinema team has digital dreams for Japan that will start the conversion moving rapidly. “2007 or 2008 should bring about solidified plans and companion announcements for substantial deployments that would mark the start of the essential transition to d-cinema, and would take possibly five to seven years to complete,” Aylsworth predicts.

Getting the appropriate groundwork in place through the testing will be crucial, says Sadanori Sato, general manager of operational technology and special projects at Warner Mycal.

“From now,” he says, “everyone — the producers, distributors and exhibitors — needs to work together so we can reap the benefits of digitalization in the future.”

Note: A similar version of this article ran in Variety on February 12th as a part of a package on the Berlin Film Festival.