Alliance against celluloid

There is something out there even bigger than the Star Wars prequel. It will also be credited to Hollywood giant George Lucas. Digital film is set to end the era of celluloid, and with it change the look and feel of big screen cinema in just about every sense. Take off your anorak, put on your Lucas replica beard and say hello to the world of e-cinema.

The special effects of Lucas’ company Industrial Light and Magic are already the stuff of film legend. But within the next two years new cinema technology using satellite and fibre optic downloads will be launched on the back of new episodes of the now ubiquitous Star Wars.

Although still protozoan, e-cinema could in the future create a resurgence of design and marketing opportunities in old and new theatres, as the ageing medium wages war against the fully interactive capabilities of digital TV.

At the moment the film industry is still reeling from the implications of what could happen to distributors if such technology catches on. If all goes as planned, cinemas will have an opportunity to diversify into the realm of digital. From interactive broadcasts and pay-per-view sports events to conferencing and exhibitions, cinemas need to decide if they want to embrace digital diversification and how this in turn affects their identities, interiors and even their on-line existence.

Odeon is certainly aware of the opportunities as it rolls out a 3.5m rebranding programme of its UK cinemas, in conjunction with Wolff Olins. An on-line booking site, promoted at great length, was coupled with a state-of-the-art automated telephone line which uses voice recognition. More is yet to come, says Odeon marketing director Ross James. “It [digital cinema] will happen, it’s got to happen and the savings are such that it is inevitable,” he says. He suggests Odeon wants to be at the forefront of the digital and interactive environments and is even in talks with digital TV networks such as BSkyB and Open.

“Once the industry has invested in the equipment it offers other possibilities for cinemas. They could become more flexible and be used for things like conferences and exhibitions,” says James. Screening sports events is another option he puts forward.

Wolff Olins has not only helped rebrand Odeon, but also BSkyB’s interactive TV service Open.

Wolff Olins executive creative director Doug Hamilton says cinemas have not seized the opportunity to innovate, unlike the retail sector, and could benefit from a radical design rethink.

“I don’t think anyone has found the Habitat or Ikea equivalent of the modern cinema. There has got to be a Guggenheim, Bilbao, version of the current cinema theatre but there is no modern architecture for it. Cinemas as malls are desperately sad places generally,” he says.

Hamilton says designers are needed to “take out all the rubbish and the barriers” to a trip to the movies, as they have managed to do with retail. “Where is the Tesco Metro equivalent of the cinema, and when did you last book to buy a shirt or queue up in the rain outside a shop?” he adds. The technology could provide the flexibility needed to shake up the cinema experience.

E-cinema’s main backer is Lucasfilm THX. Owner Lucas is shrewdly planning to film and distribute the second Star Wars prequel electronically. Given the hype around The Phantom Menace, this alone will probably be enough to convince cinemas to adopt his THX technology. Lucasfilm has just distributed the screen specifications to show films in the new format, and next week’s US preview of the Star Wars prequel will show off satellite transmission.

Millennium product award-winner Digital Projection was behind some of the first digital screenings trialed at this year’s Oscars ceremony. Marketing manager Mike Hood sees a number of opportunities for designers: “The digital upgrade of movie houses also creates the potential for… alternative applications. These may include exhibition/ conference leasing options, civic video conferencing, cable and television programming, and certain new media applications.

“The nature and flexibility of digital projection technologies does possess certain distinct advantages over celluloid, which lends to environmental design innovations. For instance, a significantly greater range of ambient lighting can be employed in digital projection scenarios. Their luminance and imaging factors stand up even in room light conditions,” he adds.

South African cinema chain Ster Kinekor launches a portfolio of multiplex sites in Europe this year, including four in the UK. The chain has recently branded itself via consultancy Foresight Europe as Ster Century (DW April 16).

Ster Century Europe managing director Mike Ross says: “In terms of missed opportunities in the UK, they [new multiplexes] have gone down the route of the leisure box.” A site typically consists of three uninspired “boxes” a cinema, fast food outlet or pub around a car park, he says. “These could be integrated together. We believe very much in integrated leisure and retail,” he concludes.

Kurt Schwenk, director of Professional THX, highlights other options: “Digital cinema offers a number of positive opportunities ranging from maintenance of the highest quality presentation throughout the run of a film, due to no wear and tear, to things such as flexibility in programming.”

“Our digital mastering program is working on the mastering of Star Wars Episode One,” he adds.

Whether existing cinemas remain unaffected by THX technology or diversify their output, one thing is certain. The possibilities for big screen broadcasting are bound to throw up opportunities across all design disciplines. The force is strong in this one.

Above: Lobby of a Ster Century cinema, by Frame Architects

New look cinema

High quality images and sound no scratches, pops, slices, tape marks, picture jumps or colour fading

Satellite transmission and digital mastering to replace existing film reels

Fewer delays between screenings add to potential output of cinemas

Screen specifications have already been distributed by Lucasfilm THX, which will also certify projection systems

Cost per projector is $100 000 (63 000), two or three times existing projector prices

Daylight screening viability

Cinema diversification opportunities

Internet link up and interactive advertising

Conferencing/exhibitions

Pay-per-view screenings

Custom formatted projection and screen size

Multiple projectors can be configured to produce seemingly continuous projected imagery

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