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With all the effort these days into making movies available through telecommunications, the idea and advantages of distributing movies via the web has not been lost on theater and studio executives. But out of some 38,000 domestic movie screens in the U.S., only 25 are wired with the broad bandwidth infrastructure necessary to receive digital film files from studios over the internet.
Proponents of the web distribution of films say it could not only give audiences a DVD-like theater experience, it would also save time and reduce workloads for theaters; saving them money in the long run. Currently, a theater cant show a movie unless they have a copy of the film in hand, and every day Hollywood studios make and ship thousands of film prints worldwide. These enormous production and shipping costs arent just absorbed by the studios, theyre passed on to the theaters and that translates to higher ticket prices for movie goers.
Digital cinema is on the horizon, but concerns include costs, security and copyright. Industry officials say these and other issues are already being discussed but the real problem facing digital film distribution is bandwidth. NISCO Systems Inc., a leading provider of cabling technology services, says the answer to the problem is fiber-optics.
Tony DeBella, President and CEO of NISCO Systems, explains that the only practical way movie theaters can receive digital film files over the internet is via a site-to-site VPN connection on high-speed fiber-optic lines.
"Generally, a digital file can download in between three to four hours," says DeBella. "While that may seem lengthy to a movie spectator, keep in mind that it would have taken more than 17 days on an average modem and basic cabling. Only with upgraded film equipment and broadband connectivity, can theaters carry digital film files with consistent speed."
Digital cinema can revolutionize the way films are distributed as well as how and what is presented to an audience, and over the long-term it can provide savings that outweigh the high set up costs, but only if, as DeBella puts it, a theater is "future-proof," meaning they don't have to constantly upgrade their system whenever the next new thing comes along. A fiber-optics infrastructure would mean a theater could support high-speed data transmission regardless of evolving technology.
"That can be a mighty potent advantage with all the new digital technology facing the film industry today," DeBella says.
The "Catch-22" to all this potential, however, is that even though the studios and theaters may get their buildings ready for digital film distribution, high bandwidth lines such as fiber-optic would still be needed between the studios and theaters to make it all work. Hugh Reid, lecturer with the Department of Electrical and Electronic Enigineering at England's Bell College of Technology, explains this is because the speed and capacity of data transmission over any network is limited to the slowest link in the transmission chain.
Cable and other telecommunications companies are working furiously to upgrade their infrastructure city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood with broadband fiber optic lines, but according to industry statistics, only about 60 percent of U.S. households and businesses are currently capable of receiving digital communications, with the rest of the world trying to catch those numbers.
But do the studios and theaters have to wait for a land-based broadband pipe to reach them? Some industry experts suggest that with recent advancements in satellite technology, an alternative may already exist. Companies such as WorldSpace, headquartered in Washington D.C., are already delivering the internet over satellite systems to southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. The International Space Business Council recently reported that 3 percent of international satellite transport capacity is already being dedicated to internet traffic and that figure is growing annually. But space-based wireless systems still need to address studio concerns over data transmission speeds, even higher equipment costs and security before they'll become acceptable alternatives to ground-based systems.
Whatever the vehicle, digital film distribution does seem to be on the horizon, and once it happens, it will open new doors and imaginative in-theater entertainment opportunities that can easily exceed what home audiences are currently experiencing with DVD technology. It will give the fun and excitement of going to the movies a whole new meaning.