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Docs by Digital Delivery: New Technologies Project a Bright Future for Nonfiction Movie Makers

By Ruth Corwin

The iS10, the first fully integrated DLP Cinema digital cinema projector from Digital Projection International and NEC Viewtechnology. The projector was especially developed for post-production applications and for cinema screens up to 35 feet in width. Courtesy of Digital Projection.

Digital projection of video has been with us for some years, but has yet to attain wide acceptance in movie theaters. Initially, there were three major problems: the high cost of the equipment, the insufficient light output to meet the movie industry's strict quality standards and the question of who was going to pay for it.

Prices have come down as light output has risen, but it's still difficult to find theaters that can project video. Although technically possible, digital projection of mainstream movies has yet to be fully embraced by the movie industry, although the most recent Star Wars installments have been shown digitally, following a strong push by George Lucas to get theaters to embrace the new technology.

On the "indie" front, most film festivals can now project from video, and theater chains specializing in independent film are beginning to install digital projectors.

Let's take a look at the potential advantages to the independent moviemaker, in particular the documentary maker producing on video. The most obvious advantage for the filmmaker is the ability to have a theatrical release without the awesome cost of a transfer from video to film.

"Digital projection in theaters will affect independent moviemakers in a very positive way," says Adrian Bellic, who, with his brother Roko, made Genghis Blues, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2000. "First we had digital cameras, then desktop editing, so digital projection is the last great technical hurdle. Of course, there are still lots of other hurdles for the moviemaker to get their work out there!"

From the movie maker's point of view, digital projection empowers the delivery of digitally-created video. We've seen formats improve from when it was very easy to spot a video-originated work by its poor quality— compared to film—to today's High Definition video which is getting harder to distinguish from film, at least by the viewing public. Cinematographers still generally prefer film, if the budget allows.

While Hollywood remains largely in the analog world of film for creation and projection, will art house theaters with digital projectors affect the traditional distribution modality for the independent moviemaker?

"The movies Surfing for Life [David Brown, prod./dir.] and Ram Dass: Fierce Grace [Mickey Lemmle, prod./dir.] both had long runs, projected from Beta-SP" says Dan Zastrow, manager of the elegantly-restored Christopher B. Smith Rafael Theater in San Rafael, California. Zastrow reports that the theater had no technical problems with the equipment during this time. "Most of the audience never knew they were watching video. As long as it's bright enough, evenly illuminated and with enough resolution, they're into the movie." To a film aficionado like Zastrow, however, "Compared to a gorgeous black-and-white print of Road to Utopia, you could tell you were watching a video."

True, but in this writer's experience, if you shoot well on 24p High Definition, and project from HD, the results can be excellent. I recall the comments of cinematographer Hiro Narita, ASC, who has shot many movies on film, after shooting Teknolust, for director Lynn Hershman Leeson on HD 24p on a Sony Cine Alta. Of this, his first 24p HD experience, Narita said, "The digitally projected image had incredible brilliance. HD is like clearing your sinuses!"

While many feature cinematographers prefer to shoot on 35mm film, with Super 16mm as a second choice, before contemplating even HD video, many documentary filmmakers work in a different world. Tighter budgets, and sometimes a necessity to shoot in clandestine fashion with a small, perhaps concealed, camera, and for a longer recording time than film permits, are reflected in the popularity of mini-DV cameras.

Theaters could undoubtedly expand their repertoire by trying new releases on video, and distributors may be more likely to take a chance on a video release because they could readily test market it, without investing in prints. An indication of this possibility occurred at San Francisco's Landmark Embarcadero Theater in the fall of 2002 when it screened Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Allen Slutsky, prod.; Paul Justman, dir.). A projectionist at one of the Landmark Theaters said that at first the movie was projected digitally, in a small theater. Because this was a new experience with new equipment, Landmark also ran a 35mm film print alongside, trailing in time by a few minutes, and without showing the image, just in case the digital projector had a problem.

The Motown movie did so well that Landmark switched to running the film print version in a larger theater, thus effectively "test marketing" the movie first by digital projection in the small theater. The projectionist, a filmmaker himself, with a preference for shooting in 35mm, observed that the digital version was "clearer than film projection." He added that as a DP he would rather shoot on film if he could.

Also, consider a documentary of great local interest that needs to be shot very economically on video, quickly edited on a home computer, then shown to an audience within days of creation, while it can still make a difference—perhaps before a local council votes on a matter of urgency. The film could be shown at an off-peak time at a theater equipped with a digital projector, and before a large audience. This should not cost a lot of money, as long as the program airs at times other than the main theater program, such as any morning before the matinees begin—although I have recently been quoted between $800 and $2,000 for an otherwise-free Sunday morning. As more theaters get digital projectors, hopefully competition will improve prices.

We might even see an arrangement much like public access television, perhaps with some local nonprofit organization making time slots available to independent moviemakers for airing independent, low-budget features and documentaries with topics of local concern.

Or, thinking locally and acting globally, the film could be uploaded to a server, transmitted through high-speed Internet connections or even by satellite uplinks, and shown throughout the globe, even streamed in real time.

Big-budget productions from major studios, originated and distributed on film to standards acceptable to the movie industry, should be able to happily co-exist with independently made low-budget features and documentaries, most likely originated on video, and distributed through art house theaters by means of digital projection. Surely this can only be to the benefit of the public, which would be offered a wider range of movies in theatrical release.

The real hurdle that digital delivery has to surmount is that of content protection. Anything in the digital realm can theoretically be copied exactly, and thus, if pirated, the distributors could face a serious loss of income. Even the best encryption codes can be defeated, making the prospect of digital delivery by satellite a hair-raising concept to executives concerned with theft, mass duplication and significant loss of revenue.

Microsoft has entered the Internet delivery picture, with its Windows Media 9 as a delivery platform, in which the movie is transmitted by high-speed connection into the computer at the theater, from whence it cannot be extracted or tampered with. In its publicity materials related to the delivery platform, Microsoft states that "Windows Media-based exhibition is dramatically more affordable than other proposed digital cinema systems for a variety of reasons, primarily because it is software decodable and not tied to expensive, proprietary hardware."

Digital Cinema Solutions has already installed digital projectors, made by Digital Projection International, in 25 of the top market locations of Landmark Theaters. The company started this process in the fall of 2002, with Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and it plans to have a digital projector in all of Landmark's theaters by the end of this year.

The Landmark Theater chain isn't alone in the vanguard to "go digital." Stevi Cavender, senior director of marketing and publicity for Madstone Theaters, says, "We have been interested in digital projection since the beginning and have always intended to retrofit one screen in each of our theaters. Our actual timeline is being considered. Digital exhibition creates a wider accessibility to documentary films. The high costs of both print making and trafficking often inhibit the wide release of documentaries. Digital cinema will cost effectively bring these films to more audiences.

"Digital exhibition will no doubt affect the current model of distribution," Cavender continues. "Although relatively few exhibitors currently have digital projectors, no one doubts that it's the wave of the future. Digital files are inexpensive to reproduce and have the capability for electronic transfer. This will radically change distributors' decisions regarding number of screens in each run, as well as alter conventional methods of print trafficking. The end result is, of course, a wider array of content for the moviegoer and a wider-reaching distribution."

Addressing the concern about industry standards, Cavender has this to say: "Digital cinema will set its own set of standards. Once these are set, the impact on the industry will be clearer and measurable."

And Cavender believes that the potential savings in prints and distribution can be channeled into advertising and marketing. "Currently, small budget films, which includes most documentaries, drain most of their resources on the actual filmmaking, and when it comes time to sell the product, little is left over. Many times, you have a great film, but because you lack the promotional budget, it never generates an audience. The digital format enables the filmmaker to spend less in production, and reserve more for marketing expenses."

The bottom line is that if more movies can be shown, and more money spent on advertising them, the future for documentary filmmakers looks a whole lot brighter.


Robert Harrison is a San Francisco Bay Area-based filmmaker and writer.