updated 3/29/2005 9:54:47 AM ET 2005-03-29T14:54:47

There's a showdown brewing at the local movie theater, but it's not playing on the screen.  It's in the projection booth.  Sony Electronics Inc., a unit of Sony Corp., last week demonstrated a projection technology for digital cinema that displays images at twice the resolution of existing digital projectors.

Sony plans to begin shipping the system in July, setting up a race with Texas Instruments Inc., whose technology is at the heart of digital projectors already on the market.  The competition is emerging at the same time Hollywood is looking to work out a fair way to roll out digital cinema nationwide to replace the ubiquitous 35mm film projectors.

Critics question how well the eye can distinguish between the 2,000 lines of resolution that current digital projectors have and the 4,000 lines Sony's new projector promises (by comparison, high-definition TV sets show up to 1,080 lines).  They also question whether color separation and contrast are any better with a higher line count.

Regardless, Landmark Theaters, owned by entrepreneur Mark Cuban, announced it would be the first to use the projectors, giving Sony a high-profile partner in the quality debate.  "We wanted to be ahead of the curve," said Cuban, who founded streaming media company Broadcast.com and sold it to Yahoo Inc. in 1999 for $5.7 billion.

Seven major film studios working as the Digital Cinema Initiative have adopted standards for digital projection that embrace both the 2,000-line and 4,000-line formats, referred to as 4k and 2k.

Film makers are beginning to use digital technology to make films, including using 4k devices to play back their daily work and store films.  For that reason, Cuban says the industry is making 4k resolution a standard and it makes sense to move his theater chain in that direction as well.  "The picture quality is amazing," said Cuban. "And we felt this would be a long-term selling point to our customers."

Early delays
Sony makes theater sound systems, so it's not new to the marketplace.  And the Sony Pictures unit is one of the dominant Hollywood studios.  But the so-called SRXR will be Sony's first venture into commercial cinema projection equipment and while the technology is promising it has taken a while to make it ready for the market.

Sony demonstrated the technology a year ago and said it would be in commercial production by winter.  The date was moved to March and now July.

Tom Mykietyn of Sony Electronics admitted that Sony used "aggressive forecasts in the beginning," but the larger goal was to get Hollywood's suggestions for the technology.  Sony demonstrated the technology most recently at ShoWest, an industry trade show held last week in Las Vegas.

Studios spend $750 million annually supplying copies of films to U.S. theaters and $1.5 billion for theaters elsewhere in the world.  Distributing digital films by satellite could cut that bill in half.  But doing so without creating digital haves and have-nots among studios, theaters and distributors has stymied Hollywood's effort to create a business plan to roll out the technology.

"We're not missing an opportunity here," Mykietyn said. "I think the whole industry is waiting on a business model. We think we had the time to work on the quality aspect of the projector."

Sony will begin shipping two models of its projector in July. The cost of outfitting a screen around Sony technology could range up to $140,000.  Texas Instruments' DLP technology is already playing in 315 theaters worldwide. That number is expected to top 1,000 in the next 12 months.

"Resolution has become a proxy for quality," said Doug Darrow, product manager for DLP Cinema at Texas Instruments.  He discounted resolution as "something engineers measure." What's important to moviegoers and the film industry is perceived sharpness, said Darrow.

"We have never once heard from the creative side of the film community that they needed more resolution," said Darrow.  "What they talk about are black levels and color performance and we deliver that."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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