Movie Theaters Fight Back–With Satellite Dishes of Their Own

Satellite transmission will save Hollywood a bundle – and maybe even transform the theater-going experience

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Cinema owners looking to pry couch potatoes away from their cable- and satellite-TV hookups will soon have a new tool: satellite dishes of their own.

Last week, a coalition of the three biggest theater chains (AMC, Regal, and Cinemark) and five Hollywood studios (Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, and Paramount, and Lionsgate) announced that satellite delivery of movies to theaters nationwide – long a dream of the industry – will finally commence this summer, with a full rollout by year’s end. (Sony and 20th Century Fox are in talks to join this group.)

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Satellite service won’t save any money for ticketbuyers, though it will for the studios, which had already slashed the costs of distribution by getting most of North America’s theaters to convert from 35mm to digital projection. Instead of shipping expensive, bulky reels of film to your multiplex, they can now send movies encoded on hard drives—at less than one-tenth the cost. Satellite, which will allow theaters to download movies from a private network onto dedicated servers, should reduce distribution costs to a minimum.

The results may not please everyone. Small theater chains, independently owned movie houses, and indie-film distributors aren’t included in the coalition (at least, not yet). And a lot of theater owners may balk at buying one more piece of costly hardware after having barely weathered the conversion to digital projection. Over the past few years, that transition cost $70,000 to $100,000 per screen, and though the studios absorbed some of those expenses, many theaters either couldn’t afford to convert, or went bankrupt trying. The National Organization of Theater Owners estimated that the cost of digital conversion could ultimately darken as many as 10,000 screens, shuttering one in every four venues in North America. Of course, some cinemas (art and repertory houses, for instance) are keeping 35mm projectors, but celluloid exhibition – the way we saw movies for a century – will likely become a specialty business catering to a niche audience.

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Still, film purists who prefer the grain of celluloid to the icy look of digital or the murk of 3D may find consolation in the prospect that satellite transmission will also allow theaters to show more diverse fare, beyond just movies. Cultural offerings, like The Met: Live in HD, which simulcasts performances from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to more than 750 cinemas nationwide, including select theaters operated by the AMC, Regal, and Cinemark chains. And imagine watching major sporting events on a screen as tall as your house. That beats the living room couch, doesn’t it?

[ Correction: The original version of the story erroneously reported that The Met was broadcast to only several dozen screens exclusive to AMC ]