Hollywood'svision for a brave new world took a step closer to reality yesterday as leadingstudio and exhibition representatives unveiled an industry standard governingdigital cinema rollout.

The move comesmore than three years after studios and exhibitors formed the Digital CinemasInitiative (DCI), the umbrella group charged with devising a set of unanimoussystem requirements and specifications to help manufacturers create uniformdigital cinema equipment throughout the US.

In fact thevision stretches far beyond North American shores, and representatives of everymajor studio who gathered at a Beverly Hills press conference stressed theultimate goal was worldwide compatibility.

It is widelyaccepted that the scheme will eventually save the studios a lot in distributioncosts, slashing individual print costs from $1,200 to roughly one-quarter ofthat for the digital equivalent, and eliminating transportation fees as studiosadopt satellite and fibre optic delivery systems.

What remainsunclear is the extent to which filmgoers will bear the brunt of digital rolloutin the exhibition sector through higher ticket prices.

John Fithian ofthe National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) refused to comment, addingthat details of the business model had not been finalised. A beta market launchis expected to commence in early 2006.

According toreports, projector installation costs will range from $60,000 to $100,000.Fox's vice president of digital exhibition and non-theatrical sales anddistribution Julian Levin said the rollout would be supported by the studios,but did not elaborate.

Each of the sixmajor studios - Disney, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Fox - plansto comply with DCI specifications, which will be available in 2K and 4Kresolutions, but there is no strict timeline.

Warner Brosplans to release all its pictures in 35mm and DCI-compliant formats by the endof the year, and the other studios will doubtless be keen to follow closebehind.

Essentially theindustry standard requires studios to format their generic film source, which canrange from anything from 35mm film to HD24P video, into a Standard EvaluationMaterial (StEM).

This is thencompressed, encrypted and packaged into a format that is transmitted totheatres.

Fithian addedthat the process would thwart piracy to some degree as it eliminated frequentexposure of physical prints in the distribution process.

While it doesnot preclude illegal camcording in theatres, Fithian said sophisticated digitalwatermarking would enable authorities to track the time and location of theoffence, thus ensuring greater vigilance at certain theatres.

American Societyof Cinematographers president Richard Crudo said his members welcomed the move,principally because it concerned projection and not digital image capture, aprocess that is regarded with skepticism by some cinematographers.

The DCIannouncement prompted an enthusiastic response from digital film-makingchampions like George Lucas, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis, technologymanufacturers, and foreign bodies such as the UK Film Trust, the Singaporegovernment, and Italy's Arcadia Cinema.

The DCI will cease to existon Sept 30, when it will presumably be up to the studios and exhibitors toadminister the rollout and create a certification scheme for DCI-compliantreleases.