Panel: Cooperation the key to universal digital future

Timetable also on ShowEast agenda

It was a digital showdown Tuesday at ShowEast as film industry experts gathered to talk about the need for universal new formats and realistic timetables as well as the future of indie exhibitors during a panel titled "Digital Cinema: Where Are We Today and What Direction Are We Going?"

Technicolor president of theatrical services Joe Berchtold, who is launching a beta digital program in theaters, parried with competitor Chuck Goldwater, president of digital theater provider AccessIT Media Services Group, over the failure rate of current digital projection.

"Up to 5% of digital screens have problems where you miss one or more shows a day," Berchtold said, though Goldwater and others disputed that number.

20th Century Fox senior vp and general sales manager Chris Aronson said his company had a 99.5% success rate, and Rave Motion Pictures CEO Tom Stephenson cited a 1% failure rate.

Berchtold added that digital cinema needs to become less complex and that there needs to be more accountability from suppliers.

"We are accountable," Goldwater said. "We started before everyone else, which is why we are where we are today. We began with no conflicts and no legacy in the business we're seeking."

Travis Reid, who heads digital cinema business development at National Cinemedia ? the joint venture among Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark USA ? emphasized the need for interoperability with no reliance on any single component in developing a d-cinema business plan and financing model. He also advocated a worldwide industry standard, a resistance to too many competitive strategies and no "haphazard deployment" of the new systems.

"I would take exception to the word 'haphazard' even appearing in this discussion," said Goldwater, who added that he had "great respect" for universal DCI standards.

"Chuck, you ignorant slut!" Reid joked back, riffing the classic Dan Aykroyd/Jane Curtin "Saturday Night Live" debate spoof to much laughter in the Orlando Center World Marriott ballroom.

National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian referred to exhibitors' recent signing of a statement calling for an open universal DCI program in which any manufacturer, studio or exhibitor could match up their equipment to see if it's compliant.

"I believe there's going to be a little bit of chaos if I see six major studios developing six different lists of specifications," Fithian said.

Several of the participants spoke of the need to reduce costs, and there was concern voiced by an independent exhibitor that his colleagues wouldn't be able to afford the new equipment. J. Wayne Anderson encouraged the independents to join the Cinema Buying Group to leverage prices (a suggestion that earned much applause) but warned, "If independents aren't proactive about adopting digital technology, they're going to be out of business in the next few years."

Several panelists touted the advantages of digital projection, from moving films easily around a multiplex to the depth of field in 3-D films to the "ability to raise prices without consumers complaining," Stephenson said.

No one could set a timetable on how long it would take for a full digital rollout, though Fithian said it likely would accelerate toward the end of 2007.

All seemed to agree that cooperation is the key. "We all need competition, but we need competition that's interoperable," said Buena Vista Pictures Distribution president Chuck Viane, who had great success this past weekend with his digitally remastered 3-D version of "Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas." "We're in the toddler stage, but we need to start sharing each other's toys."