Coming soon to a screen near you ...

Rachelle Thackray gets a sneak preview of BT's electronic cinema, which does away with celluloid
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The Independent Culture
For today's cinema distribution moguls, it can be something of a pain if a film is an unexpected, runaway hit. Extra prints must be manufactured at speed but may take days or even weeks to arrive, failing to catch the wave of audience enthusiasm. If a movie flops dramatically, it's worse; surplus prints are costly. But with the advent of electronic cinema - a technology whereby high-resolution film images are delivered and projected electronically to individual cinemas - that could all change.

When electronic cinema becomes a reality rather than a twinkle in the eye of its most enthusiastic proponent, BT, others will be quick to exploit its potential. Cinemas presently standing empty during the day could host corporate real-time video events such as horse racing or football matches. Advertisers, meanwhile, would leap at the chance to target specific audiences by changing commercials before each showing.

Bob Anderson, of BT's pounds 200m offshoot BT Broadcast Services, says: "At the moment, cinemas have to splice in all the various adverts. When they've finished, they have to take the adverts out. It's a fairly laborious and inflexible process, but with electronic cinema, you can work on a very much faster basis." And by the time electronic cinema becomes a reality, picture quality for the punter will be as good as, if not better than, it has ever been.

The concept has been bred in a stable of innovation: BT is also developing variable bit rate video streaming, which will allow users to view full motion pictures on a PC, and to select TV commercials and news clips in real time. Media users can choose clips by category and specify an appropriate download speed to fit in with airtime requirements.

In electronic cinema, 35mm film is scanned using a telecine process and becomes a series of digits, which is then encrypted. It is fed to a video server, and, on a large scale, would be sent via satellite to cinema servers, each of which are linked to a scheduling workstation. Programmes are then "dragged and dropped" on to a timeline to create a schedule, and decryption takes place inside a high-density projector just before the showing. Movies can be held in a central store, and piracy can thus be all but eliminated.

Picture quality is being improved with the help of Supervisor, a display optimiser devised by BT's partner Snell and Wilcox. It receives the picture source before it enters the projector and processes it to reduce flicker; it overcomes "Venetian blind" syndrome (where the line structure of a TV picture leaves gaps on a bigger screen) by upconverting input to create additional picture information based on the existing material, and inserting it in the spaces.

But while BT is excited by the potential of its project, it won't be hitting the big screens for a while. First, it has to persuade exhibitors, distributors and advertisers that electronic cinema is truly the way forward. To pave the way, it gave a preview for industry chiefs and workers last week. "We held the evening to open up the debate within the industry," says Anderson. "We are looking for as much feedback as we can get, both technically and commercially.

"We are saying the industry needs to move forward in a coherent way and it's not our place to impose a solution. It is clear that unless the complete chain - studio, distributor, advertiser, exhibitor - are all on board on a common platform utilising common standards, it won't work."

He admits that some influential people have been critical, and adds that improvements are being made all the time. "Some of the problem we have is contrast; getting the blacks really black, and the whites really white, and getting the colours right - the projection does tend to wash-out some of the colours. But the basic technology is there now."

While the industry works through the implications of such a transition, cinemagoers are already enthusiastic. Working with Virgin Cinemas, projection company JVC, Channel 4 subsidiary 124 Facilities and broadcast equipment manufacturer Snell and Wilcox, BT has already spent a year trialling its new project on unsuspecting audiences at a cinema in Ealing, west London. More than 90 per cent of people didn't notice anything different; some even said the experience was improved.

Sadly, cinema ticket prices are unlikely to drop if and when electronic cinema takes off, even though it will cut costs in some areas. "Projection technology is relatively expensive, but if volume orders started to come in, costs would be reduced," says Anderson. He predicts that change will be slow at first: "It can go as fast as the industry is prepared to move. It won't be tomorrow, but it's not too far off.