By 2015, the main movie studios will no longer distribute cinereel footage, but what will be gained? And what lost?
In the last century, movies used to be printed on film stock composed of celluloid that could combust in a flash and be gone forever. Today, it is rare for movies to be printed on film and transported manually to the local Roxy, Electric or Odeon.
No catalyst was needed to destroy this method of film delivery. It simply took the introduction of the digital distribution employed for music, and increasingly books and movies.
With cinereel distribution, if you lived outside London you would have to wait several weeks for the latest cinema release to reach your town. It's also the reason Hollywood movies could take months to reach the UK. Today, a movie can be distributed via hard-drives, optical disks or satellite and projected using digital projection systems instead of a conventional film projector. Thus the talk is of pixel counts, usually 2K (2048x1080, or 2.2 megapixels) or 4K (4096x2160, or 8.8 megapixels).
This hasn't just occurred overnight. Digital media playback of high-resolution 2K files has at least a 20-year history with early RAID (redundant array of independent disks) storage systems feeding custom frame buffer systems with large memories.
Initially it was only possible to record a few minutes of material. Then there was the lumbering difficulty of transporting content between remote locations, which was slow and had limited capacity. It wasn't until the late 1990s that feature-length projects could be sent over the networks or dedicated satellite links.
Only when the economics of the distribution method started to slot into place was digital cinema considered, and this took the form of an initiative from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, which began work on standards for digital cinema in 2000.
The decreasing cost and increasing storage capacity of hard-drives mean that a feature film can be stored at 2K, around twice the pixel density of full HD movies (1080p) at 24 or 48 frames per second (fps).
Today, a 300GB hard-drive costing about £100 can store a feature-length movie and can be used again and again. If, at a conservative estimate, it is used about ten times, that's £10 per movie.
Winning the economic argument is one thing, but persuading the movie industry to trust in digital can still be difficult - particularly as it has witnessed how digital downloads have affected the music industry with the growth of digital piracy. There is, however, scant evidence of hacking into the digital distribution system to pirate content according to David Hancock, senior principal analyst for Cinema at Analysts IHS iSuppli.
"Naturally, the content is encrypted with secure delivery, playback, and reporting of playout times to the film distribution company," explains Hancock.
"3D became the catalyst for convincing the few naysayers of digital distribution because it was seen as a way to combat piracy as it would be impossible to recreate the 3D image by recording a cinema screen using current technology.
"Although there were a handful of movies, such as 'Chicken Little' in 2005, it wasn't until 2009's 'Avatar' that the real breakthrough occurred," adds Hancock.
Several competing systems are available, but all require or benefit significantly from digital projection. The industry has invested heavily in filming in 3D and in 3D post-production technologies, led by director James Cameron, and leading Hollywood player Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Thus, where digital distribution was seen as Pandora's box that would exacerbate the problem of digital piracy, it is now seen as a means to control piracy.
The next big nail in the coffin of traditional film will be Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit', the first movie to be shot and processed at 48fps, whereas movies to date have been presented at 24fps.
When excerpts were presented in this format at CinemaCon, an industry trade show in Las Vegas earlier this year, many observers felt that the line between video and film were being further blurred.
But other than this, 'The Hobbit' is likely to bring major changes to the movie projection requiring investment in new technology at cinemas.
Digital market leader
IHS Insight announced earlier this year that digital cinema made up the majority format on global screens for the first time last year. The number of digital cinema screens in 2011 reached 63,825, equivalent to 51.5 per cent of global screens. Growth was hefty, with last year's overall numbers up 82 per cent from 35,070 screens in 2010.
"With digital cinema leading the market, the full effects of this disruptive technology now are being felt across the board by film exhibitors, distributors and a range of affiliated industries. The most pressing technology issue is higher frame rates - now a matter of concern due to the December 2012 release of 'The Hobbit'," says Hancock.
James Cameron is in the process of producing follow-ups to 'Avatar' at the even higher rate of 60fps.
The future of cinema
One futher emerging technology to look out for is laser illumination, which will move ahead initially through the retrofitting of existing lamphouses, and then move onto laser-illuminated projectors in the longer term.
Cinema projector company Laser Light Engines is a leader in this technology, which could significantly reduce the projector's cost of ownership as well as providing the extra light sometimes needed for good-quality 3D presentation.
Screen format company Imax Corporation recently unveiled its dual 4K laser projector, capable of digital projection on screens 120ft wide or larger.
The new technology improves colour contrast, particularly for varying shades of black to grey, according to Imax. Initially, the projector will benefit the largest screens (80ft'or larger) and dome locations, which have only before had access to analogue film.
Digital projection currently only caters to screens up to 70ft wide. The projector also reduces the cost of prints for studios and cinemas by providing more flexibility in programming and access to more content. The laser light source is also expected to remain constant through the life of the system.
On the business side, the major improvements in the past year included full conversion to digital cinema for the larger exhibitors, along with a spread of the funding group mechanism to help otherwise struggling exhibitors achieve conversion.
With the massive shift to digital, demand for 35mm prints has plunged. At its peak, film distribution used approximately 13'billion feet of film a year. That amount began to decline sharply in 2010, and the industry this year will use closer to four or five billion feet for distribution purposes.
Hancock predicts that the end of 35mm is nigh: "Mainstream use of 35mm is projected to cease in the United States and other major markets by the end of next year, with global cutoff likely to happen by the end of 2015."
Out with the old
Without the watchful eye of a projectionist, things can still go wrong. Digital screenings can freeze, the sound can cut out or, in one manufacturer fault (now reportedly fixed), the picture can turn completely pink.
By ushering in digital and ushering out people, it's not the medium that's under threat, it's the wealth of knowledge the industry is set to lose as the art of projecting'gives way to pixels and software packages.
"I think that some of the cinema chains are in an obscene hurry to dismantle the projectionist's role and are losing a dedicated skill base that will never return," says BECTU (the projectionists' union) national officer Mick Corfield. "They all know the cost of a digital projector but not the value of a dedicated projectionist."
Archiving digital material is also turning out to be both tricky and costly. In a 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be "enormously higher - 1,100 per cent higher - than the cost of storing film masters."
Furthermore, digital archiving faces challenges due to the insufficient temporal qualities of today's digital storage: no current media, be it optical discs, magnetic'hard-drives or digital tape, can reliably store a film for a hundred years, something that properly stored and handled film arguably does.
Opening up the market
The film industry has been dominated by a small number of distributors for many years due to a high barrier of entry for new competition. This is caused by high costs and a lack of access to well-established production and distribution networks. By replacing film prints with digital, the barrier to entry is significantly reduced, opening the market to competition.
One added incentive is the ability to show alternative content such as live events, sports, pre-show advertising and other digital or video content. Some low-budget films that would normally not have a theatrical release because of distribution costs might show in smaller engagements than the large release studio pictures.