November 4, 2005

Disney’s 3-D “Chicken Little” spawns digital test

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For years, the movie industry has
pondered that age-old question of which comes first, the
chicken or the egg, when debating how to update old theaters
with new digital projectors. Walt Disney Studios now thinks it
has an answer: The chicken.

Disney on Friday is sending computer-animated "Chicken
Little" into thousands of theaters, including more than 85
North American venues showing a three-dimensional version on
digital cinema systems that will have audiences ducking to
avoid flying saucers and space aliens.

The launch is being viewed as a test of the digital concept
that has promised to transform the century-old movie industry,
but has stalled in the chicken-and-egg debate. That change,
however, has gained in importance amid the current 6 percent
slump at U.S. box offices, which generate around $9.5 billion
in annual ticket sales.

"We have to provide a better experience" for audiences,
said Paul Glantz, president of digital supporter Emagine
Entertainment Inc in Michigan. "We see the future and believe
the future is now."

Hollywood's studios stand to slash tens of millions from
annual distribution costs by shipping digital movies, but that
can't happen without digital theaters.

Theater owners, however, have refused to pay the roughly
$100,000 per screen to digitize if the only content is the same
old movie. They want new 3-D flicks, live music concerts and
sports events to lure more patrons.

So, faced with the stalemate of which came first -- the
digital theater or the digital content -- Disney in June
partnered with equipment maker Dolby Laboratories and visual
effects company Industrial Light & Magic. They made "Chicken
Little" in digital 3-D and began installing digital systems in

"It was an opportunity that was waiting to happen," said
Chuck Viane, who heads up Disney's domestic film distribution.


John Fithian, president of the National Association of
Theater Owners (NATO), likens Disney's effort to a "first
experiment" for digital cinema, but cautions that many tests
lie ahead before a wide digital deployment to the roughly
36,000 movies screens in the United States takes place.

Efforts to kick-start the digital cinema movement bogged
down in the late 1990s over issues of technology and who would
pay the billions of dollars needed to complete a transition.

Last year, the studios decided to fund the major portion of
the bill, and in July an industry-backed group known as Digital
Cinema Initiatives set technology standards around which
equipment vendors can design projectors and computer networks.

Only Christie/AIX, a venture of projector maker Christie
Digital Systems USA and service provider Access Integrated
Technologies Inc., has stepped up with a way to fund the
transition, but others are waiting in the wings, sources said.

Under the Christie/AIX plan, studios would pay a "virtual
print fee" for Christie/AIX to distribute a movie to theaters
in which it has installed digital networks.

In the past two months, Disney, Universal Pictures and
Twentieth Century Fox have pledged to make movies for the
venture, and on Wednesday Christie/AIX said it signed a pact
with Emagine and southern California's Ultrastar Theaters Inc.
to equip their theaters.

By the end of this year, Christie/AIX expects to outfit 150
theaters with digital networks.


3-D movies are nothing new, but the technology used for
"Chicken Little" is. It can be seen only on digital cinema
systems, said Michael Lewis, chairman of Real D, the company
whose technology underlies 3-D "Chicken Little."

Real D's technology uses glasses with polarized lenses, not
the old red-and-blue models that caused some viewers to
complain of dizziness and headaches. The projector speed runs
at six times that of film, so the on-screen image is not jerky.

Still, Charles Swartz of the Entertainment Technology
Center at the University of Southern California, said the
industry wants to learn more about the technology before widely
adopting it.

"As soon as the opening of 'Chicken Little' is over, we'll
want to see what lessons they learned about all those
installations," Swartz said.

But 3-D movies are a only small part of the digital cinema
concept. When theaters are linked by satellite distribution
systems and digital projection, they become a sort of
closed-circuit network for special events.

Supporters envision 3-D championship football games or auto
races in theaters packed with partisan fans buying popcorn,
hotdogs and beverages.

That future, they hope, is a lucrative one. Put another
way, those profits are no chicken feed.