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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In the movie theater of the near future, the big attraction may not be a movie.


How about a front-row seat for opening night of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest Broadway musical - without the bother of traveling to the Big Apple?


Perhaps you prefer a NASCAR race from the vantage point of one of the drivers ... and in 3-D.


Or your thing might be playing the latest “Grand Theft Auto” on a 40-foot screen while other gamers cheer you on.


In recent months Kansas City opera fans have flocked to local megaplexes to see live broadcasts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Many have been sell-outs.


“Those digital opera broadcasts are bringing people to the cinema who haven’t been in 20 years,” said Bill Mead, editor of www.DCinemaToday.com, a Web site that reports on the digital industry. “It’s like 3-D for old people.”


In fact, digital 3-D technology is the driving force behind this revolution at the movie theater. Looking for a way to pry audiences away from their flat-screens, Hollywood has jumped on a gimmick from the `50s. Today’s 3-D still requires special glasses, but it provides the thrill without the headaches and discomfort of the old system. And theaters can charge a few dollars more for tickets to 3-D presentations.


According to Charlotte Huggins, producer of this summer’s 3-D version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (it opens July 11), virtually every animated feature is now being designed with 3-D in mind. “Journey” is the first-ever live-action feature shot and presented in digital 3-D, and Huggins believes once Hollywood sees how audiences respond, the makers of action/adventure movies will adopt the process.


Just about any event can be presented live in a digital theater.


In late March, digital cameras and projectors were used for the first live 3-D/high-def presentation of an NBA regular season game in a commercial movie theater. A contest between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers was transmitted via satellite from the arena to a Dallas-area movie theater, where an audience of 300 donned special polarized glasses to watch the event.


“In Europe they’re showing formula auto racing in theaters and filling the auditoriums with people who have paid $20 each to get in,” Mead said. “It’s broadcast on TV at the same time but not with the detail digital offers.


“That’s a totally unique experience that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. And I don’t care how big your plasma screen TV is or how good your surround sound. 3-D digital cinema pushes the experience to a whole new plateau.”


“We’ve done concerts, operas, sporting events ... even wrestling,” said Dale Hurst, head of marketing for the Georgia-based Carmike Cinemas, which with 2,349 screens is the first national chain to go 100 percent digital. “Watching these events in digital 3-D you’re no longer a spectator. You’re a participant.”


Last fall Carmike digitally presented a local college football game at one of its theaters in Morgantown, W.Va.


“I figured it was a bad idea,” Hurst said. “Why would anybody buy a ticket to see the game in our theater when the stadium was only a few miles away?


“We sold out three auditoriums. And I realized that’s our future.”


Talk of a filmless movie industry has been around for a decade. But it has accelerated in recent weeks, with both big theater chains and little independent operators cutting deals that will pave the way to digital conversion.


And when that happens - when the industry is no longer wedded to long strips of celluloid passing through a projector - it will introduce a brave new world expected to pull customers away from their home TVs.


It won’t happen overnight.


“Film will still be around for a number of years,” said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “Some say five, some say 10.”


And then there’s the price tag. It will cost the American exhibition industry billions - between $60,000 and $100,000 per screen - to replace all those projectors.


“The studios have huge incentives to do this,” said Fithian, noting the savings that will be realized by distributors when they no longer have to spend millions to make exhibition prints and ship those large reels of film.


The question has always been why theater owners should cough up so much money to underwrite a technology that, initially at least, is going to benefit those who make and distribute content. That was the prime topic of discussion at March’s ShoWest convention in Las Vegas, and in the ensuing weeks some major developments have brought a solution closer.


In March four studios - Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Universal - agreed to help finance and equip 10,000 screens (about a quarter of all screens in the U.S. and Canada) with digital systems. The studios are so eager for theaters to install digital auditoriums to take advantage of a wave of 3-D movies planned by Hollywood that they’re willing to help pay for the changeover.


Three major exhibitors - AMC, Regal and Cinemark - have banded together under the banner Digital Cinema and begun negotiations with studios on a business model that would convert 14,000 of their screens.


The national theater owners association has sponsored the Cinema Buying Group, an amalgamation of regional theater circuits and very small independents who may operate just one or two screens.


Representing about 8,000 auditoriums, the Cinema Buying Group represents theaters that might never convert if forced to go it alone.


“Digital totally changes the dynamics of where savings and profits lie,” Mead said. “Exhibitors are paying more for the digital projectors, but ... with digital they don’t need as many people in the projection booth. “


In fact, one person at a computer terminal can monitor all of the presentations in every auditorium of a megaplex.


“And there’s incredible flexibility,” said Carmike’s Hurst. “If a theater manager realizes that he’s selling more advance tickets for a certain movie than was expected, he can simply move that movie to a bigger auditorium. Before you’d have somebody carting a huge, heavy platter of film from one projector to another. With digital you just click and drag.”


Digital equipment has proven surprisingly trouble-free, according to Mead.


“What exhibitors have realized is that digital doesn’t mean the end of the film business so much as the beginning of something bigger and better.”


___


THREE 3-Ds


This summer will whet audience’s appetite with two 3-D films: the live-action “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (July 11) and the animated “Fly Me to the Moon” (Aug. 8).


The big gorilla on the horizon is James Cameron’s science fiction epic “Avatar” (December 2009). Anticipation for that film is running so high that it’s expected to spur theater owners to install more digital 3-D auditoriums.

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