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Saturday, May 8, 1999 Published at 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK

Will digital be the death of cinema?

Will the digital revolution spell the end of collective cinema-going?

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

New technology has gone on display in New York which has enabled a full-length feature film to have its world premiere simultaneously in a theatre and on the Internet.

It meant that for the first time ever, the movie could be watched by millions of computer users as well as cinema-goers

The film, a low-budget black comedy called Dead Broke, appeared on the big screen by way of a digital projector attached to a computer which was downloading a video stream from the Internet.

It did not look quite as good as a conventional celluloid, but the images were far better than I expected.

For computer users watching the movie through media player software, the results were less satisfactory.

[ image: The public cinema: A relic of the past?]
The public cinema: A relic of the past?
Many doomsayers predict the digital revolution will destroy the magic of the cinema, not movies themselves, but the actual communal experience of going into a dimly lit auditorium, munching popcorn, and engaging in a collective celluloid fantasy.

This view may be unduly alarmist, but this new technology definitely has the potential to wreak dramatic changes in the distribution of movies.

In the brave new world that its promoters are predicting there will be no need to physically transport costly canisters of film to individual movie theatres, old fashioned projectors will become redundant, and so may cinemas themselves.

Clearly when the digital revolution becomes fully-fledged, will have far more impact on cinema viewing habits than the advent of home video ever did.

The video store may be the first casualty, because before too long Hollywood studios will probably move to make their films available on digital servers to any computer user anywhere, at any time, who is willing to pay.

[ image: Lucas: A big fan of digital cinema]
Lucas: A big fan of digital cinema
Filmmakers who are benefiting from this new technology and embracing it are not without reservations. Edward Vilga, the director of Dead Broke, was not totally comfortable that his feature, shot on pristine 35mm film, was being premiered through the Internet with the majority of "first nighters" viewing his artistic endeavour on a tiny computer screen with poor resolution.

But Vilga is a first-time independent director and a realist.

"If I could control the world, I would have everyone watch the movie in a great theatre, with great sound....but because I can't do that, I am willing to accept the trade-off and just get it out there," he said.

The technology still has a way to go before it matches 35mm images, but it has some powerful backers. George Lucas has just given digital filmmaking a huge shot in the arm.

He recently announced that his next Star Wars epic will be digitally produced with digital cameras. Lucas is also giving digital projection a big boost.

[ image: A digital Star Wars screening ahead]
A digital Star Wars screening ahead
Next month Lucas will transmit an electronic version of Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace through four digital projectors, probably in cinemas in New York and Los Angeles.

Digitising the distribution of movies will not automatically lead to a demise in cinema admissions. Last week's premiere of Dead Broke shows that it merely increases the range of viewing venues.

But there is little doubt that this technology will result in more movies than ever being watched in isolation, on the computer screen or on some hybrid version of it.

This is the development that makes me most uncomfortable.

The public cinema remains one of the few truly democratic levelling institutions left in America.

Yes, it can be smelly and uncomfortable, but for me nothing beats the shared collective joy of watching a film with my fellow humans in all their splendid diversity.

We may not be able to staunch the march of new technology, but let's make sure the digital revolution does not destroy the collaborative nature of cinema-going.

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