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How movies will be affected

The coming age of high-definition television will affect the world of movies in four ways: It will make movies look subtly different on television.

Movies are made at 24 frames a second. Television images are broadcast at 60 frames a second, each frame "painting" every other screen line, so that it takes two passes to cover the whole screen with 30 virtual frames. This slight discrepancy between movies and TV cannot be perceived on current television sets, except subtly. When movies are played on HDTV, however, the viewer is likely to be able to see a slight flutter, and so electronic equipment will be used to repeat frames to match the 30-per-second requirement. Viewers may know something "feels different," but they won't know what.

Movies will also look different because the new screens will be wider in relation to height. Letterboxing will seem less extreme. But there could be a new threat to older movies shot in the traditional 4-3 aspect ratio: Will their tops and bottoms be clipped off to make them appear wide-screen? Saints preserve us. It will encourage new home viewing experiences.

The picture will be so crisp, it will easily transfer to larger screens. But there is a limit to how large a big-screen TV can be. Free-standing TVs will be replaced by overhead high-definition projectors and large screens that hang on the wall. Families will be able to sit in front of screens measuring 10 feet diagonally or larger. With "line doubling," the image may approach film in richness and texture. It will help the Internet merge with broadcast TV.

The crisper screen will make it easier to read Web pages on TV. TVs and monitors are already growing closer together in picture quality, and eventually consumers will not be aware of whether a given program is coming in over the air, from cable, satellite or the Internet. It will become a rival for celluloid in making and distributing theatrical movies.

A few movies have already been filmed in high-definition TV. They look good. On a theatrical-size screen, however, they are no match for light-through-celluloid. And TV itself has a built-in problem not shared by film: It does not have an infinite scale from black to white. It does a good job in the middle of the spectrum, but it has problems with pure white, pure black and subtle grays. It drops off quickly at either end of the brightness scale. Film goes the whole route.

High-definition TV is likely to be cheaper than conventional film, however. And there's no doubt it would be cheaper to beam a high-definition signal from a satellite to a movie theater than to make a celluloid print and ship it there. Although movie directors are unanimous in supporting film, the industry is cost-conscious and may try to switch to the new digital technology delivered to theaters by satellite.

These satellite-fed movies will not play quite like real movies, however, because of a subtle difference in the way film and TV are perceived. A movie picture consists of 24 still images, which seem to move because of "persistence of vision." A TV picture is never there on the screen all at once, but is constantly repainting itself. As a result, movies seem more real and TV seems more hypnotic. That's why we can remember old movies more easily than old TV shows. If high-definition technology replaces movies in theaters, it will be bad for movies and bad for audiences.

Home use of high-definition TV will not discourage people from attending movie theaters any more than regular TV does.

Most consumers, in fact, have no beef with the quality of current TV. They like to watch movies on TV and they like to rent videos, but box-office attendance has gone up steadily in recent years. Some viewers, especially younger ones, simply want to get out of the house. Others enjoy the big screens, great sound and the audience experience. Movies are here to stay.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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