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Microsoft preps for digital film close-up

The software giant gets ready for a digital debut of independent screenings using its Windows Media 9 technology.

Microsoft is coming to a theater near you.

The software giant on Wednesday said its Windows Media 9 technology will be used to screen a series of eight movies in some 25 cities around the United States in partnership with Digital Cinema Solutions (DCS), carmaker BMW, and a number of independent movie studios.

The series will kick off next week at New York's Apollo Theater with a screening of Artisan Entertainment's "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," a documentary about The Funk Brothers, a little-known studio band now credited with crafting the sound made famous by headlining vocalists at the Motown label. A series of BMW advertisements, also screened in Microsoft's digital format, will run before the movie.

The screening marks the latest step by Microsoft into the digital cinema arena, following experiments in the past year bringing the indie film "Wendigo" to the big screen. Last month, Microsoft showcased four independent films at a conference in New York.

"We started this out last year with no advertising, just to see if people would walk out of the theaters," said Jim Steele, president of DCS. "They didn't."

The BMW series comes as filmmakers and producers are beginning to shift over to digital production and screening technologies, creating a lucrative opportunity for technology companies that provide backend digital production, encoding and delivery products.

In perhaps the most high-profile example of digital cinema to date, George Lucas offered limited digital screenings of the latest installment of his Star Wars series, "Attack of the Clones." Those screenings were handled using a variety of technologies, including encoding formats from Topeka, Kan.-based QuVis and a projector developed by Texas Instruments known as the Digital Light Processor.

In addition to sharper picture quality and other claimed enhancements, backers of digital cinema point to potential savings in distributing movies. One of the biggest of those expenses is creating 35mm prints from digital masters, which can cost between $1,500 and $2,000--a price that will disappear once digital cinema comes online over the next few years.

Switching over the digital cinema technology can be expensive, however, and theater owners are reluctant to pick up the costs, particularly as the industry has yet to settle on standards.

DCS' Steele said high-end systems may cost as much as $200,000. By contrast, he said Digital Cinema Solution's core product, built around Intel and Dell Computer components running Microsoft software, costs about $70,000.

The transition to digital is still in its infancy--some 100 theaters worldwide screened "Attack of the Clones" digitally--but it's almost certain to gain momentum once standards issues are hashed out.

At least four international standards groups are examining the technology, including the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG), the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

In April, meanwhile, seven studios joined to create a group aimed at setting industry standards dubbed Newco Digital Cinema.

Steele said the pending series is not intended as a head-on competitor in the standards race, but as a proving ground to demonstrate DCS' technology is ready for prime time.

"Theaters have been pretty receptive," he said. "But we're not trying to go toe to toe with digital cinema in the big theaters. Things are still too turbulent to try to set this as a standard."