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Theater's Front-Row Seat to Digital Future

The Pacific Hollywood, built to debut the breakthrough technology of its day -- talkies -- now has a new role: showcase and lab for the high-tech replacement of film at cinemas.

April 25, 2004|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

It is said that the ghost of Sam Warner haunts the musty spaces of the Pacific Hollywood theater, snatching cellphones and pagers and Palm Pilots when their owners look away.

The forlorn movie palace, locked behind metal security gates in the heart of Hollywood, was Warner's dream, the first theater built expressly for talking pictures. The second-youngest of the four Warner brothers died at 42, never to see what the Los Angeles Times called the theater's "dazzling" opening in 1928 -- or its long, slow slide into dereliction in the decades that followed.

Charles S. Swartz takes comfort in believing that Sam Warner's spirit, at least, may be watching over the theater's rebirth as a sophisticated test center for the next generation of movie technology.

"The idea that we are now on the cutting edge of giving movies their next life into the 21st century would absolutely thrill him," said Swartz, executive director of USC's Entertainment Technology Center, a research group backed by the major studios as they gird for the advent of digital cinema.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Hollywood theater -- An article in the April 25 Business section about a movie technology center at the Pacific Hollywood incorrectly described Roy Wagner as a cinematographer on the television show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." He left the series after the first season. The article also incorrectly said "CSI" was shot in a digital format. It is shot on film and transferred to a digital format in post-production.

If cinema's tomorrow is taking shape in a relic of its past, it's happening without a lot of glitz. Unlike the other movie palaces along Hollywood Boulevard that have undergone costly face-lifts -- notably the El Capitan -- the theater is to most eyes not ready for its close-up.

Its now-dowdy Spanish Renaissance auditorium looks just as it did when the theater shut in 1994, with faux stars flickering in the ceiling, faded red velvet seat covers worn thin with age and garnet curtains framing the screen. It smells vaguely dusty and damp.

On the roof, though, is the future: a battery of satellite dishes. And along the back wall of the Hollywood's projection booth, a bank of 12 powerful computer servers blink furiously. Peering out at the five-story screen are three projectors: A high-end model by Kinoton able to handle 35-millimeter and 70-millimeter film and two high-resolution digital projectors, all cooled with a dedicated air conditioning system.

The $1 million worth of equipment represents a fraction of the $1 billion the seven major studios believe they can save annually by embracing a future without film, when movies shown in theaters will be the result of streams of 0s and 1s flowing either from a high-speed Internet connection or from optical discs.

That's years away. Many aspects of Hollywood production have already been digitized, from editing to special effects. Capturing and exhibiting the work remain almost exclusively film, though more and more productions are replacing film with digital cameras because it's easier and cheaper.

Converting theaters to digital remains the latest frontier for movies. By doing so, studios could save hundreds of millions of dollars currently spent on printing and distributing film. Plus, picture quality would remain perfect, unlike film, which degrades over successive trips through a projector.

Still years away, that transition is projected to be as significant for the movie industry as "The Jazz Singer" and the introduction of talkies was in 1927.

It was for "The Jazz Singer" that Sam Warner persuaded his brothers to spend their last $1.25 million to build the Warner Hollywood Theater. Sam was fascinated by technology and worked personally with Bell Laboratories to develop the sound technology for movies, technology for which Warner Bros. Pictures held exclusive rights.

The Warner Hollywood Theater was intended to showcase it, and Warner personally oversaw construction. But it became clear in 1927 that the movie palace wouldn't be ready for the premiere of "The Jazz Singer," which instead opened that October in New York.

The night before the premiere, Warner died of a brain hemorrhage. Six months later, when "Jazz Singer" star Al Jolson spoke at the opening of the theater, a plaque remembering Warner was unveiled in the lobby. Over the years, Marlene Dietrich and other Hollywood A-listers strolled past that plaque on their way to countless premieres.

Some of those films are now being premiered anew on the cinema's digital projectors.

"At Christmas last year, we screened 'The Adventures of Robin Hood,' " Swartz recalled. "In 1938, 65 years ago, that movie had its premiere in that theater, shot in Technicolor. Now we're showing the same movie digitally restored and digitally projected."

These days, the theater's patrons are more geek than glam. Instead of bearing diamonds the size of marbles, they bring tiny computer chips that drive $100,000 digital projectors.

Under the faux sky painted on the ceiling of the cavernous auditorium, Paul K. Miller, technical go-to guy for the USC center's digital cinema lab at the theater, held up one such chip recently. Packed on a 2-inch-square piece of silicon were 1.3 million mirrors that pivot on command to reflect light. The mirrors are so minute, and the spaces between them even tinier, that together they appear to be a single, smooth surface.

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