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"Is Steven Spielberg Right to Fear Technological Change in the Movie Business?"

The Economist speculates on the future of digital cinema distribution:

"I am a Luddite!" declared Steven Spielberg after a recent preview screening of his film, "Catch Me If You Can", which opens on December 25th. Digital cinema, he insisted, was not the revolution around the corner that its apostles proclaim: that world was still as much as 20 years away. In ten years, he conceded, digital projectors might sit alongside mechanical ones in cinemas -- but there would still be old-fashioned infrastructure to satisfy directors like himself who love the look of 35mm film.

Few directors make hits ("ET", "Jaws", "Saving Private Ryan" and so on) as consistently as Mr Spielberg. As a Hollywood mogul, he also embodies one of two competing visions about how movies will be watched in future. Mr Spielberg shudders at the notion of atomised viewers calling up a film on their laptops at the touch of a button, home and alone. A romantic, as his pet cinematic themes of fantasy, escapism, discovery and redemption show, Mr Spielberg prefers the idea of strangers huddled together in the dark, watching a flickering image on the screen.

The alternative vision belongs most famously to George Lucas, a champion of digital cinema, who helped to inspire Mr Spielberg's film-making craft in the 1960s. His voice is powerful, too: when he urged cinemas to show "Star Wars: Episode Two -- Attack of the Clones" on digital screens, the industry jumped. The big studios agreed to set up a consortium to look into digital quality-standards. Digital, say its advocates, does not squelch artistry, but creates new visual options (think of "The Blair Witch Project"), and, because the recording equipment is cheaper, does so for a wider movie-making population.

But what is it that Mr Spielberg really objects to? The advent of digital distribution does not, in itself, threaten his power in Hollywood. For artists, it is not a disruptive technology, as sound was in the late 1920s, when an entire generation of movie-stars suddenly found themselves jobless. His objection, rather, is truly Luddite: it is to the idea that this technology represents progress at all. The digital moving image, unblemished by scratches, hairs, burn holes or splice marks, may mesmerise techies, but purists such as Mr Spielberg believe that it robs movie-making of its artistry. He makes lavish use of computer-generated special effects, but he still passionately prefers the look and feel of celluloid film. Indeed, his most recent films, such as "AI" and "Minority Report", betray a profoundly ambiguous, if not sceptical, attitude to all technological change...

History suggests that Luddites eventually lose. In the 19th century, publishers resisted the phonograph, claiming that it would destroy sales of sheet music, just as the phonographic industry later feared radio. Neither proved any more correct than Hollywood's worry a century later that home video would kill cinema-going. Rock stars grumbled about the shift from vinyl to CD, but got over it. Film-makers may be addicted to celluloid -- which Mr Spielberg once dubbed a more "expensive habit" than heroin -- but the day will come when there are no flickering screens, no hairs, no dustmarks. Indeed, no more film.

Two quick points:

  1. I recently saw Attack of the Clones in an Imax theater. Having been filmed on 24 frame-per-second progressive-scan high definition television cameras, I have to say that even blown up to a 40 foot-high image, it looked spectacular. I was incredibly impressed with how good high-definition television could look in the right hands -- and say what we will about George Lucas' screenwriting abilities, the man knows motion picture technology.
  2. On the other hand, my local stadium seating theater can't even get the sound right on their largest screens. I've complained; they've acknowledged the problem; and nothing happens. If they can't fix something as basic as this, what are the chances they're going to successfully manage a transition to digital distribution technology anytime soon?
Long-term economics and picture quality notwithstanding, I think it may be a while before we see widespread use of digital distribution. We'll get there, but not soon.

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