04/07/2011 06:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Going to the Movies: The Times They Are A-Changin'. Rapidly.

2011-04-01-CameronLucasKatzenberg.jpg Movies are a business. Yes there are very famous, very attractive people involved in that business (more about them tomorrow) but, in the end, it's about producing movies, getting them in theaters and getting people into the theaters to see them. And, even though there are all sorts of stars at CinemaCon, as the annual meeting of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the overriding concern is filling the theaters. Toward that end, there was a great deal of talk about the future, a future in which digital technology plays a huge role.

Former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd who nine days previously -- a fact he repeated often -- had assumed the role of Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) spoke about the state of the industry. His message was loud and clear: piracy is the biggest threat to the film industry in general and theater owners in particular.

He said, in part,

"Let me begin with the obvious: The production and exhibition industries cannot succeed -- cannot survive -- without each other. If you fail, we fail. And it's just as true that if we fail so will you.

"We've come a long way together in the century since the first screening of a feature length motion picture in Jacob Stern's horse barn in Hollywood, California on February 14, 1914. Cecil B. DeMille invited 45 people (all of whom had worked on the film) to view The Squaw Man, which he made for $15,000. This premiere, if you want to call it that, was a total disaster.

"In order to save some money, Mr. DeMille had purchased second-hand British equipment with ill-fitting sprockets, causing a technical malfunction that allowed the audience to only see the characters' hats, foreheads, boots and feet, and not much else. The economics of our industry have changed, of course, since that day in 1914. And, fortunately, so, too has the technology."

Dodd noted that, in 2009, the number of digital and 3D screens more than doubled and that one in five dollars spent at the box office now comes from 3D.

"I can't help but wonder what Cecile B. DeMille, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zucker and the rest of these [movie] pioneers would say if they could have been among the millions of moviegoers who marvel at the experience of seeing Avatar in a 3D theater."

He spoke of movie theft, piracy, as the biggest threat to the industry, noting that people tend to see it as a victimless crime. He pledged to ask Congress for tighter intellectual property protection.

CinemaCon featured a panel with directors James Cameron and George Lucas, and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Their discussion was called "Frankly Speaking; The Digital World of Filmmaking Today, Tomorrow and Beyond."

Their message was simple: Digital filmmaking is in its infancy and what is coming in that field will make us all see movies in a different light. Lucas said, "Where we are in digital is like 1900. We're just scratching the surface."

Of the three panelists, it was Lucas who made the subject clearest to an audience of people not working daily with the technology. He said sound was the biggest technical advance in movies until digital technology came along and compared it to the difference in technology found in painting frescoes and oil painting, as the latter gave the artist much more freedom of expression and allowed the creation of art to evolve.

Lucas did say that the digital conversion of the Star Wars films cost more to achieve than the original cost to make.

Cameron talked about his long history of working in digital and 3D photography. He said that Titanic "played so long in theaters our prints fell apart. We learned that 16 weeks" is the lifespan for a print. Digital photography, with faster frame rates -- 48 or 60 frames per second as opposed to today's standard of 24 per second -- will help movies last longer. "I fully intend to make the rest of my movies at a higher frame rate."

"And," he added, "3D was the catalytic agent that precipitated the change to 3D."

Katzenberg said the change to digital "transformed the [movie going] experience and transformed the art. That innovative spirit is in the DNA of filmmakers."

All three spoke of the impact seeing movies in a theater has on them; of the communal, social nature of people that seeks out such experiences.

They urged the theater owners in attendance to switch to all digital. But, after the panel, several owners spoke of the cost -- approximately $100,000 per screen -- as daunting, if not prohibitive. One said, "I have 18 screens. I will get some of the money back and will ultimately save money when satellite distribution eliminates some fees, but that's a lot of money to put up front."

The satellite distribution system is on in which the films are sent via satellite to a mainframe computer in the theater and the computer is programmed to play the film at a set time. It will eliminate the projectionist and the transport of films.

The other big issue for theater owners is the plan announced by Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers and Fox to distribute product through a DirectTV video on-demand (VOD) service called Home Premiere. The service will make movies that have been in theaters for 60 days available for home viewing at a cost of $30 each.

Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover 2, at CinemaCon to promote the film said, "If I wanted to make movies for TV, I'd be a TV director." His remark was greeted with great applause.

Photo of (from left) James Cameron, George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Getty Images.