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Shortly after the stroke of midnight on May 19, the words beginning with "Chapter 3..." began their slow crawl from the bottom of movie screens across the country. At 12:01 a.m., and not a second before, a small IT operations center perched several flights of stairs above a darkened auditorium in Brooklyn's Pavilion Theatre dropped its digital payload on an audience hungry for acrobatic light-saber duels, intergalactic dogfights, and an epic showdown between the Force and the Dark Side. And so began the long-awaited national release of Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge Of The Sith, a movie created entirely as digital video.

In the Pavilion's main projection room, a celluloid projector sat dormant. Beside it, a newer Christie Digital Systems Inc. digital model cranked out the images, delivered in data packets, fed from a Doremi Labs Inc. media player. These devices shared the improvised IT room with a library server running on a Stratus Technologies Windows-based fault-tolerant server, which the theater uses to organize its content much the way many of the teens in the theater below build playlists on their iPods.

For Access Integrated Technologies Inc., Sith isn't just the next chapter in the Star Wars saga, it's the latest test of a digital supply chain the company believes will change the way movies are transported from Hollywood's back lots to neighborhood cinemas worldwide. While some movies are already shot and shown using digital technology, AccessIT is looking to digitize the middle part of the supply chain.

Studios and theater owners are getting on board with the vision, which has a high up-front price tag but will pay off in the long term, Russell Wintner, AccessIT's president and chief operating officer, said Wednesday night prior to the Star Wars premiere. Whereas a celluloid projector might start at $35,000, an initial investment in digital technology would cost $80,000, he said, adding: "It's 100-year-old technology versus brand-new technology, but the studios are willing to pay for the paradigm shift."

Savings could be significant for the movie industry, according to a May 12 report issued by investment research firm J.M. Dutton & Associates LLP. "Converting a major portion of the first- and second-run theaters to digital files, over a period of years, would save on the order of three-quarters of a billion dollars in physical product and create a market of about $250 million to be served by AccessIT," the report said. This is based upon about 200 major Motion Picture Association releases per year and the assumption that the average major theatrical release goes to an average of 5,000 domestic prints and maybe another 7,000 internationally.

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