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The debut of the independent movie 'Evergreen,' sent to theaters via satellite, is a step forward for digital technology.

September 13, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

When Enid Zentelis' "Evergreen" was shown at Sundance earlier this year, the film festival director told her that finding a distributor would be twice as hard as making the movie.

"I felt like throwing up because this film was very hard to make," the director said, by phone, from New York. "Maybe I should fold now, I said to myself, never thinking that Dick Walsh -- chairman of the film division of the second largest exhibitor in the country -- would connect on a personal level to a character film about economic struggle. After the last screening, he gave me his card. The next day I had the distribution I'd dreamed of."

On Friday, "Evergreen" premiered at 115 AMC theaters in 27 major markets and represented the inaugural feature film offering of the chain's 3-year-old Digital Theater Distribution System, in which the movie is transmitted to theaters by satellite. Far cheaper than manufacturing and distributing 35 mm prints (each of which costs upward of $1,000), the system permits theater owners to show independent fare that falls through the cracks or, at best, ends up in limited art-house release.

The quality of the technology -- currently used by theaters to mostly show sporting events, concerts and educational programs -- is on a par with that of high-definition TV. It is not, however, up to the standards of traditional projection or the high-resolution digital technology in the wings, says AMC spokesman Rick King. Still, it's a way of getting small films in front of an audience and broadening moviegoing choices. More than 2,500 of AMC's 3,150 U.S. venues have digital capacity -- most of them in suburban locations where independent films are few and far between.

"This is the first time we've released a movie on a regional or national basis, dealing with a filmmaker rather than a distributor," King said. "It's a response to what we see as a growing appetite for independent and specialty films. By communicating with our frequent moviegoers online, we can market the film as well. It's not a replacement for our core business of playing studio movies, however. Just a supplement to it."

Zentelis knows her timing is fortuitous. But, then, everything about the film -- which stars Mary Kay Place, Bruce Davison, Gary Farmer, Cara Seymour and Addie Land -- was a longshot, the writer-director says. Developed at the Sundance Institute after she graduated from New York University Film School, it was shot on a shoestring budget with money raised from New York and Seattle investors.

The story of a young girl going to extreme measures to gain the acceptance of her boyfriend's affluent -- and seemingly idyllic -- family won her the Best First-time Director Award at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival.

"The movie is an honest depiction of the working poor in this country -- a direct response to the wish-fulfillment propaganda fed to them by the media," said the 33-year-old director. "If you just keep on working, your dreams will come true, they're told. I come from very modest means. My immigrant parents never got ahead and had a constant sense of failure. I wanted to create an emotionally satisfying film that makes people feel empowered ... even if they don't end up marrying a millionaire or winning the lottery."

John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, points out that Landmark Theatres -- the largest primarily art-house and independent film circuit -- has also begun to show movies with existing digital equipment.

But the real revolution is around the bend, he maintains. As early as next year, movie theaters may begin installing state-of-the-art digital projection systems, of which there are now about 90 in the U.S. and 200-plus worldwide. (AMC has nine and Loews 18.)

To date, only 100 movies have been transferred into the digital format, but that number should increase exponentially when the technology to show them in theaters is in place.

"The transition to digital will be the biggest change in the history of movie theaters, rivaled only by the advent of sound," Fithian said. "Movies will be shot with digital cameras, edited on computers, distributed over satellite waves or broadband connections and exhibited on digital projectors. This will happen relatively fast -- no longer than 10 years down the road."

A number of technological and economic factors must be worked out first, Fithian says. For starters, the lack of uniform standards. With companies such as Texas Instruments, Sony and Eastman Kodak throwing their hats in the ring, if clear-cut specifications for manufacture and projection aren't established a VHS/BETA-type battle could result. A group called Digital Cinema Initiatives, created by the seven major studios, expects to finalize such standards over the next 12 months, paving the way for a worldwide rollout.

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