From The Hollywood Reporter:
“A long time ago — actually two decades ago this month during the summer of 1999 — Lucasfilm’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was being hotly debated by Star Wars fans, while in the cinema world it earned the distinction of being among the first motion pictures to be screened digitally before paying audiences, helping to launch cinema’s seminal transition from celluloid to digital.
Those first pioneering screenings were “a mixed bag of emotions: Excitement, fear, the anxiety of knowing we could quite possibly fail — and fail publicly,” remembers Lucasfilm’s director of postproduction Mike Blanchard. “I remember thinking that we must be crazy to think it would work. It seemed like it took forever to reboot when it crashed.”
Episode I of George Lucas’ saga arrived at four of the earliest digital cinema theater installations — two in Los Angeles and two in Northern New Jersey — on the same day as at least one digital cinema screening of Miramax’s period drama An Ideal Husband. As some remember it, the two films opened within an hour of each other, though for those involved, memories are already fading and there are varying versions of the story.
“It was Harvey Weinstein trying to one-up George Lucas, that’s the way I remember it,” one insider recalls. “Everyone considered Phantom Menace (whose digital debut was announced at Showest 1999) to be the first one. [Miramax] did a last minute thing, that’s what it seemed like.”
“It was a race for bragging rights,” remembers Howard Lukk, who was involved over the years while working at companies including Disney and studio consortium Digital Cinema Initiatives. “Miramax just edged out Phantom Menace by an hour or a couple hours.”
Retired vp of mastering at Paramount, Garrett Smith, recalls that Lucasfilm made the decision to have the digital release after he and a small group of colleagues showed George Lucas a digital cinema demo in December 1998 in Skywalker Sound’s Stag Theater at Skywalker Ranch. The demo, he says, included digitally remastered clips from films including Sleepy Hollow, The Truman Show and Grease. “That was the demo that convinced him,” Smith relates.
Lucasfilm’s Blanchard remembers that once the decision was made to debut a digital version of Episode I, “We had to pick the four theaters that were going to show it by booth size and access so it could be installed. … Just to make it more difficult we were using two different projectors because we wanted to remain agnostic to the two prevailing projection technologies at that time. A lot of people put tremendous effort into making it happen.”
These two technologies were Texas Instruments DLP projectors and Hughes-JVC projectors. TI would go on to license the DLP chip to early digital cinema projector makers Barco, Christie and NEC, while the Hughes-JVC projector didn’t quite make it out of the gate. “That projector was such a kluge. I think we were just so enamored by the technology,” laughs Jerry Pierce, then senior vp of technology at Universal and now head of the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum as well as a technical consultant to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO).
In the end this far-reaching change in how movies are made, distributed and exhibited occurred not thanks to any one individual or company, but an ambitious pioneering effort that involved the Hollywood studios, filmmakers, exhibitors and technology developers. It also brought together organizations including NATO, American Society of Cinematographers, USC’s Entertainment Technology Center and Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, as well as countless other companies, organizations and individuals.
“I don’t think we had any idea what we were doing. But we had a path,” Pierce admits, reflecting on the early days of the transition. “This was a feeding frenzy for the sharks. Everyone wanted to be a part of this and there was so much fighting. So many companies had zero clue about the business.” […]”