Digital `Star Wars' heralds the end of flickery flicks

POPCORN, cuddling couples and the gentle whirr of the projector. A night at the movies wouldn't be the same without them. But the summer release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace will mark a new era in cinema history. The end is looming for the film reel, that most potent of Hollywood symbols.

Within five years celluloid film and the projector will be consigned to history and cinema as we have known it for more than a century will never be the same again.

Since the screening of the first silent film, cinemas have relied on mechanical projectors. Now George Lucas is preparing for the new millennium by showing his latest blockbuster on digital projectors.

For while the movie industry has changed dramatically since the first motion-picture whirred into life, its reliance on mechanical projectors and reels of celluloid film has remained unchanged. Now experts believe digital projectors will revolutionise the industry.

The decision by Lucasfilm to screen the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga using the new technology is a bold move that has the rest of Hollywood watching closely to see how the film is received.

It will be shown in four different cinemas in two as-yet unnamed American cities, testing two different types of digital projectors.

Mr Lucas gave his reasons at a cinema industry convention last month: "I'm very enthusiastic about the digital cinema. The quality, the savings in cost and the ability to do things that just aren't possible today."

He plans to produce the next two Star Wars films using digital technology throughout. The films will still be shot on traditional cameras loaded with film, but will then be transferred to a digital format allowing speedier editing and production, although in the future film may be replaced by digital cameras.

Mr Lucas is convinced cinema audiences will benefit from cleaner and sharper images, which won't show the wear and tear that hits celluloid film after about 30 plays.

The switch to a new format also means a new system of distribution for film. Currently studios pay a distributor to make prints of a film and distribute it to cinemas around the country. These prints often come on reels that are five feet in diameter, and can weigh as much as 60lbs.

Digital projectors will allow films to be distributed either by magnetic tape, a CD-Rom or via satellite and played at the touch of a button.

Jerry Rodgers, head of the National Film and Television Archive's telecine division, expects digital projectors to start appearing in cinemas within five years.

"Economics will be the driving force and costs seem to tumble when digital technology is used. Producers are going to see better financial returns from digital that will move them very quickly into the new environment," he said.

"But Hollywood will also need to get involved. There needs to be some controlling influence and more than likely that will be Hollywood."

Those who stand to lose most are not as enthusiastic. The introduction of digital projectors in cinemas will cost, at current prices, around pounds 65,000 per screen. This represents huge costs for cinema owners whose investors will not be keen to spend further money so soon after investing in new multiplexes.

The owners claim that the money distributors will save by not having to ship films to cinemas should pay for the digital projectors.

Richard Segal, managing director of Odeon Cinemas, said: "I have been involved in this business for 10 years and projection of this sort has always been five years away. What's happened now is that the technology works, but the cost of taking it to every screen in every cinema around the country is prohibitively expensive.

"I think cinemas would definitely be looking to the distributors to pick up these sorts of costs."

However the distributors in the UK, Carlton Communications and Rank, neither want extra costs, nor to lose the money they make from producing duplicate celluloid prints.

These prints, which cost around pounds 1,300 per reel, would become redundant with the introduction of digital projectors, thus reducing a major part of their business.

They claim digital projectors aren't yet able to match celluloid in image reproduction, and believe it will be closer to 10 or 20 years before they begin to appear in the local multiplex.

But whatever the timescale, one thing is certain; for Lucas, and other directors behind the Hollywood studios' effects-laden blockbusters, the digital revolution will open up a galaxy of cinematic possibilities.