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Movies Beamed Into Theaters by Satellite: Exhibition Meets Age of Technology

Satellite distribution of movies, higher frame rates, laser projection and anti-piracy systems mean the annual Las Vegas trade show is focusing on innovation

An initiative to beam movies into thousands of U.S. theaters by satellite is one of several technological leaps unveiled at the CinemaCon convention this week that will bring traditional movie distribution fully into the digital age.

From higher frame rates to laser projection to anti-piracy systems, the annual Las Vegas trade show has overflowed with gadgets and innovations intended to improve the moviegoing experience while finding economic efficiencies.

Last year’s dispute between movie studios and theater-chain owners over premium video on demand feels like the distant past.

Also read: Peter Jackson Debuts a Disappointing 'Hobbit' at CinemaCon

This year the two sides are teaming up, as for example with the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition (DCDC), a joint effort by Warner Bros., Universal and theater chains Cinemark,  AMC and Regal, to deliver movies via satellite.  

“It’s using technology to take a lot of the cost out of the system,” Tim Warner, the CEO of Cinemark, told TheWrap. “This allows for last-minute bookings, it allows the commercial piece (of movie scheduling) to do what it needs to do.”

About 70 percent of U.S. cinemas are equipped with digital projection systems, but theaters still receive their movies on computer hard drives.

The satellite initiative, which will be rolled out this fall on 11,000 U.S. screens, is a game-changing shift away from nearly a century of 35mm movie prints and its next-generation heir.

Starting in the fall, instead of physically shipping out movies, studios will be able to digitally upload them via satellite, giving both themselves and the theater owners the flexibility to schedule or swap out movies and trailers.

The system is also about half the price of sending thousands of hard drives to theaters around the country.

Also read: Ang Lee: 3D is the Future, But Shooting 'Life of Pi' is a Learning Curve

This potential would expand on a current initiative in which live performances are streamed, for example, from the Metropolitan Opera or Los Angeles Philharmonic by National CineMedia, which is also part of the DCDC initiative. Those are currently available on 1,000 screens, rather than 10 times that many — and at a far lower quality than would be available over the new system.

Once the system is up and running, the theater also becomes open not just to a broader range of alternative programming at higher quality but to the staging of live, interactive gaming on a big screen.

Among the other technologies being unveiled at CinemaCon include PirateEye, an Orwellian surveillance system in theaters that installs five-inch cameras weighing as little 14.5 pounds and sends out beams of light to identify pirating activities three to six seats at a time on film.

Also read: PirateEye Is Watching You, So Illegal Camcorders Beware

But innovation comes with a steep learning curve for both audiences and filmmakers.

Peter Jackson's presentation of early footage from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" drew a mixed response from convention-goers.

Some griped that it removed the painterly quality from film images and looked more like a Latin telenovela than a bold step forward in filmmaking.

Still, others like Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells raved that "this is almost  too good, I was half-telling myself. It's the best 3D I've ever seen and probably ever will see in my life."

Even the filmmakers who use these new tools acknowledge that the process can be challenging. At a panel with director Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee said that filming his forthcoming "Life of Pi" in 3D required an enormous learning curve. He said the cameras were "like a refrigerator" and said he had to teach himself a whole new way to think visually.

It was the future, Lee acknowledged, but making the leap can be treacherous. Just ask the pencil pushers who were around when the personal computer became mainstream.

For exhibitors, all these new formats and doo-dahs are appealing, but do the aesthetic advantages justify the cost? After all, they just invested to make the costly transition from film to digital projection.

That fact was brought home at a presentation for laser projectors on Wednesday. Lasers were hailed for their ability to improve picture quality, while using less power than conventional projectors.

But as the panel of executives from Barco and Sony Digital kept reassuring theater owners the technology, though dazzling, was still more than a year off and faces regulatory approvals.