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Cisco eyes Hollywood with digital film demo

The Internet network-equipment company will be the first to transmit a full-length, 80-minute film as a digitized file directly to a movie debut across the country.

As Hollywood grapples with the ramifications of the Internet explosion, Cisco Systems this week may give the film industry another technological breakthrough to think about.

The Internet network-equipment company will be the first to transmit a full-length, 80-minute film as a digitized file. The film--called "Titan A.E."--tomorrow will be sent in digital form from a computer system in Burbank, Calif., to a movie debut across the country in Atlanta. A similar effort used satellite technology as a distribution mechanism, but no one has transported a film over a typical fiber-optic network.

The process of sending the 42-gigabyte file--20,000 times the size of a typical MP3 music file--is expected to take up to three to four hours, according to Cisco executives. Cisco is staging the transfer with one of its largest customers, Qwest Communications International, and partner BellSouth.

The technology transfer by Cisco and 20th Century Fox is intended to showcase the potential of networking technology as a means of altering the way films are distributed to theaters. Such a trend could change the economics of the film industry, which currently creates and sends numerous celluloid copies of movies to theaters at great cost.

"To us, this is the next small piece in a much bigger puzzle," said Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's domestic film group.

Other films have been shown in a digital format, such as last year's "Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace." But none have been sent to theaters using a telecommunications fiber-optic network such as Qwest's, which was built using a variety of Cisco's routing devices.

Cisco executives said that with the demonstration, they simply want to show that such a delivery method is feasible. "Technologically, it could happen tomorrow," said Larry Lang, vice president of service provider marketing for Cisco.

But film executives say there are several issues that need to be ironed out before digitized transmission of film becomes commonplace: namely, who will pay the bill to digitize the film industry on a wide scale.

"There's too many things that have yet to be figured out," Sherak said. "We know it'll save money in the long haul, but the question is who is going to pay for it going forward."

Costs associated with distributing films through fiber-optic networks include upgrading film equipment to handle digital files and building high-speed connections directly to the multiplex cinemas that show the movie, according to executives.

For Cisco, entering the film industry could increase the demand for its products, which shuttle digitized information to their destination as Internet "packets."

"As the cost of bandwidth decreases, the number of applications expands," Lang said. "It creates new opportunities for service providers to do this sort of thing. The more (Internet) packets are sent around, the better it is for us."

Qwest will use a private connection to send the file, alleviating the possibility that hackers could disrupt the transfer of the movie.

"Times change; technology is going to take us wherever it wants to go," Sherak said. "The industry is learning. This can be done."

The film will be shown at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta as part of an event held in conjunction with the annual Supercomm telecommunications industry trade show. The digitized file will be stored on a server system made by QuVis and shown using equipment made by Barco/Texas Instruments.