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Hollywood investing $1 billion in digital theater projectors

Consortium of five major studios plans to put digital projectors in 20,000 screens in North America, a move that could substantially cut costs due to savings on prints and distribution.

A group of the biggest Hollywood studios said Wednesday that they will invest more than $1 billion to upgrade 20,000 North American movie theaters to digital projector systems.

According to Reuters, Disney, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Lions Gate Entertainment have reached a pact with investors, including Blackstone Group and JPMorgan Chase. The work would begin in 2009 and could take as much as 3 and 1/2 years to complete.

For some time, the studios have wanted to embark on the upgrade project, Reuters wrote, but have been unable to nail down the financing. But now, with the money in place, work can begin with the goal of making it possible for the studios to send films digitally to theaters--which would be a sea change for studios, allowing them to cut costs immensely on prints and distribution--as well as to more easily present 3D films.

"Our initial goal is to convert existing theaters of our owners, AMC and Cinemark, and Regal, which operate a little over 14,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada," Travis Reid, CEO of Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, told Reuters, adding that each screen upgrade costs around $70,000.

Already, Hollywood and theaters around North America are in the middle of a major expansion of 3D screens and a major change in the technology being used for 3D films. In the spring of 2007, there were just 720 screens equipped to run 3D films, but that number has now jumped to 1,300, Reuters reported.

For the studios and the theaters alike, adding 3D screens is a boon because of ticket premiums of $3 or more.

And that's why several studios are planning on rapidly increasing the number of films they release in 3D.