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The Digital Force

Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge Of The Sith, which hits theaters this week, is the second movie in George Lucas' 28-year anthology to be shot and edited entirely as digital video. But like its predecessor, Star Wars: Episode II, Attack Of The Clones, only a small percentage of filmgoers will be able to watch it in digital format.

It's not that Hollywood hasn't embraced digital. The majority of feature-length movies are edited in the medium. And some, including the two latest Star Wars flicks and the recent blockbuster Sin City, were filmed, sent, and, on a limited scale, shown in the format, too. The problem is few distributors and theaters are equipped to handle digital movies.

Digital has many pluses. The latest technology provides the same high-quality viewing as celluloid. Sony Electronics' 4K digital projectors, expected in July, have 4096-by-2160 pixel resolution that can display images at more than four times the resolution of current high-definition projectors. Digital also retains its quality viewing after viewing, unlike film, which wears down a bit every time it's shown. By the third week of a film's release, moviegoers often see annoying scratches and speckles dancing across the screen.

What's missing is an industrywide, standards-based electronic supply chain of high-speed networks, servers, assembly and scheduling software, and projectors that can move digital films from studios' editing rooms to the nearly 37,000 silver screens in North America and thousands more around the world. "The theater of the future will have a main server and local area networks with 300-Mbps bandwidth screaming from subservers that can hold 1 to 2 terabytes of data linked to digital projectors," says Jerry Pierce, senior VP of technology at Universal Pictures.

For the most part, that vision already is technically feasible, and movie studios and theater operators have been moving in that direction for the past five years. But costs, standards development, and huge investments in legacy 35mm film systems have slowed progress. Work has picked up recently as companies such as Landmark Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group outfit their theaters with high-speed network links, servers, and digital projectors. Studios also are putting in the IT systems needed to create, edit, transmit, and store media in digital format. Just last month, Sony Pictures Entertainment inked a deal with Ascent Media Group, a distribution and services company for the entertainment industry, to convert the studio's extensive film, television, and other media assets into digital format.

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