Digital standard is coming soon

Plans eye more d-screens than traditional by end of '10

The number of digital-cinema screens in the U.S. could exceed the number of traditional screens employing film projection within four years. That is, if a series of deployment plans that are expected to be under way by early 2008 stay on track.

A survey by The Hollywood Reporter showed that the proposed plans call for more than 20,000 digital-cinema screen installations in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2010.

"Once beta markets feel ready, installation will accelerate," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "We believe that will occur in 2008."

Still, there remain a limited number of suppliers as well as standards-and-compliance issues, all of which could be among the factors that could cause delays.

Currently, there are about 3,000 digital screens installed domestically out of a total screen count estimated at about 37,000. Most of those are part of the Christie/AIX program, which aims to deploy 4,000 digital screens. The AccessIT unit already has completed the rollout of about 2,800 screens with such exhibitors as Marquee Cinemas, Neighborhood Cinema Group, Celebration Cinema, Cinema West, Cinetopia, Emagine, UltraStar, Galaxy, Rave, Carmike Cinemas and AccessIT's Pavilion Digital Showcase Cinema. Deployment of the 4,000 screens is expected to be completed by November.

Meanwhile, AccessIT continues to work on new exhibitor deals while beginning discussions with studios toward an additional phase of deployment — where the target would be 10,000 screens by the end of 2010, according to Chuck Goldwater, president of AccessIT's media services group.

Other efforts are moving forward concurrently. Technicolor Digital Cinema has a beta program under way with about 200 installations, and deployment is expected to begin by early next year. Technicolor's plan calls for the installation of 5,000 screens in North America within three years, said Joe Berchtold, president of theatrical services at Technicolor.

"In 2007, we've seen a real stability of the technology that has been in place," he said. "Therefore I think 2008 is when we'll start to see the real momentum in the industry behind the conversion."

Deployment also is imminent at Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, a joint venture owned by AMC Entertainment, Cinemark USA and Regal Entertainment Group that represents more than 14,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada. Formed in February, DCIP is working on deals with the aim of beginning to transition its screens in early 2008. DCIP chairman Travis Reid expects to complete deployment of digital screens to the three chains in three to four years, depending on technology availability. He estimated that at least 75% of the screens would be digital by the end of 2010.

Also looking at the beginning of next year as a goal to begin rollout is Cinema Buying Group, which operates as a separate entity under the NATO banner. It has about 4,000 screens committed to go digital, and that number might climb to more than 5,000 in the U.S. and Canada by summer's end. The organization is accepting proposals that would be reviewed in the fall during ShowEast, CBG managing director Wayne Anderson said.

It is possible that some theaters are counted in more than one of the deployment projections, when considering numbers.

Still, these efforts seem to bode well for digital-cinema proponents as well as the 3-D movement. Leading 3-D provider Real D's chairman and CEO Michael Lewis said, "From Real D's perspective, the 2-D rollout will determine the size of the Real D platform (rollout)."

Concluded Fithian: "(Digital cinema) is the biggest technological transition in our industry since the advent of sound, and it is much more complicated. This rollout will take somewhere between five to 10 years."