ShoWest convention last month, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian characterised the digital future of cinema-going as the most radical change to the way we watch movies since the advent of sound. Whether that proves to be true or not, it is fair to say the transition is proving to be fractious. What ultimately will transpire is apt to both confirm what crystal ball-gazers are saying and surprise us with totally unexpected consequences.
The arrival of this non-celluloid era has been five years in the future for more than a decade and it would not surprise most pundits if we were still on the cusp in 2017. Nonetheless, there is now an inevitable sense tomorrow will be 100% digital.
The realisation of that future has and will continue to be protracted because no one has emerged as the cinematic Henry Kissinger, capable of a rigorous schedule of shuttle diplomacy that gets things done. We have been told minimum technical standards have been set but it is unlikely a universal system will emerge. It is almost certain the home experience of a DVD that simply will not play on a machine will occur with some regularity in multiplexes for years to come.
There is also general agreement the cost-sharing between exhibition and distribution will involve some form of royalty payment by the majors to theatre owners to defray the initial cost of the new equipment. Still there are a lot of question marks. Major circuits are not going to have a problem securing loans to finance the transition but where does that leave someone with one or two theatres; especially when distributors large and small are no longer striking film prints.
The future could be a landscape littered with a lot of last picture shows. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the movie-going experience of tomorrow will be confined to cities and if you happen to reside in the hinterlands there will be HD TV and NetFlix and trips to Metropolis.
On the flipside there has been speculation the comparatively inexpensive costs of making digital copies of films will level the field for alternative movies. The technical flexibility certainly will exist to turn every multi-screen venue into a repertory site with more options than cable television.
The reality is that cutting edge technology is not going to change a thing. Change will spring from people with bright ideas, regardless of the medium du jour.

The Warrior's returns
Universal has recently experimented with a different approach to distribution. The company has re-released Peaceful Warrior, based on a motivational book by Dan Millman previously released last summer by Lionsgate in North America on a limited basis, grossing $1.1m. In an effort to build word of mouth and raise awareness of the film among fans of the book, Universal teamed up with the website of national electronics chain Best Buy to give away free tickets to the film worth $15m.
Universal calculated the equivalent of roughly $2.7m in ticket sales occurred in its opening weekend (March 30-April 1) on 615 screens. The film company spent about $2m on prints and advertising.
The same weekend Miramax released the critically acclaimed The Lookout in 955 theatres and it grossed $2 million. In that situation its financial risk between production and marketing costs was about $25m.
The difference in the maths is quite startling. It is unlikely the Peaceful Warrior experience will spawn a flood of similar ventures but it certainly suggests there are creative ways to deal with a fiercely competitive marketplace and make it work for a film that otherwise would be lost in the shuffle.