Digital cinema makes its Canadian debut

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TORONTO -- At long last, digital cinema has come to Canada.

In December, Cineplex Entertainment, Canada's largest exhibitor, got the digital ball rolling when it installed nine Christie DLP cinema projectors at a new 12-screen multiplex in Oakville, Ontario. To date, Cineplex has installed 45 digital projectors in theaters across the country and aims to replace all its 35mm projectors over the next two to three years.

Elsewhere, in March, rival AMC Entertainment opened the doors on an all-digital 24-screen multiplex in downtown Toronto. And Kodak is set to install digital cinema on 15 screens for Empire Theatres.

Howard Lichtman, an industry consultant with the Lightning Group, says 10%-12% of U.S. screens have converted to digital, while 6%-8% of Canadian screens have eschewed bulky film reels.

Although behind the U.S. market, Lichtman expects the number of Canadian digiplexes to increase dramatically in 2009, when the imminent deal between the Hollywood studios and U.S. exhibition giants Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark Holdings and AMC spurs Canada's own conversion from film to digital projection and 3-D.

Since a digital 2K projector typically costs around $75,000, some indie Canadian cinemas that are part of the National Association of Theatre Owners Cinema Buying Group have negotiated with distributors for a lower per-screen costs as they transition to digital cinema.

Cineplex currently has 24 locations that can digitally screen 3-D movies, including the recent Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert movie.

Dan McGrath, Cineplex executive vp, says the company's digital rollout, once completed, will include 200-250 screens outfitted with 3-D technology.

"The key thing that digital does is open up new opportunities in terms of content," McGrath says. "We can run opera and concerts in HD, and quality is good, but once we can run alternative programming through a 2-D and 4K projector, the quality becomes incredible."

Besides its nine digital screens at the Oakville multiplex, Cineplex also installed six bowling lanes, a VIP lounge for adults and party rooms for kids.

"The movie theater offers opportunities that have not been capitalized on," adds Adina Lebo, executive director of the Motion Picture Theatre Associations of Canada. "It's a wonderful meeting space. The new technologies have made it possible."

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