November 4, 2005

Disney’s 3-D ‘Chicken Little’ Spawns Digital Test

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES -- 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 theaters.

"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.