By Ty Burr
Updated May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The future has to start somewhere,” sighs Tom Avitabile, a projectionist at the AMC Empire 25 on Manhattan’s 42nd Street. Right now, that future is unspooling onto the 20-foot screen of theater 13, and, really, even the word unspooling is passe here, since this print of the cult anime film Akira isn’t on a celluloid strip. It isn’t even real. It’s digital: A gaggle of ones and zeros streaming off a computer server is subjected to high-tech mojo inside a Texas Instruments Digital Light Processing projector, then blasted out a lens by a 6,000 watt Xenon lamp. But you can’t tell that from fifth row center, and that’s why the digital revolution is readying to transform yet another aspect of our humdrum analog existence. Certainly it’s going to shake up Tom Avitabile’s life. ”There’ll be no more projection industry,” he shrugs philosophically. ”There’ll be technicians, but there won’t be projectionists. It’s progress. The union’s not happy with it.”

While digital filmmaking has been getting all the press — actors-turned-directors like Ethan Hawke (the upcoming Chelsea Walls) and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming (The Anniversary Party) have jumped on the cheap/fast digital-video bandwagon, and George ”Look, Ma, no film” Lucas shot the entire next installment of Star Wars on high-end DV equipment — the real front line right now is at your local multiplex. Simply put, the 31 digital projectors that Texas Instruments installed two years ago on a test basis at select movie theaters around the world have proved to the film business that this technology is at last ready for its close-up.

But is the film business ready for digital projection? Can financially strapped theater chains afford a wholesale conversion of their physical plants? Can they afford not to? Here are the questions everybody’s asking.

What is digital projection? Pretty much what it says: a projection system in which the image is stored in digital form on a computer file — one 50-gigabyte mother of a computer file — rather than within the grains of a celluloid strip. The trick is to make it look as good as film, with none of the scan lines or jaggedness we associate with video. Texas Instruments was first with a commercially feasible projector (and thus hopes to become the de facto market standard), but Kodak, Sony, and others are working on their own units. Additional companies are developing ways to get the file from the studio to the theater, whether that’s by satellite download, fiber-optic cable, or plain old DVD-ROM.

Why even bother? In a word: money. The major studios spend an average of $800 million per year making film prints, an expense that would virtually disappear once the conversion to digital was complete. There’s one catch, says Eric Scheirer, an analyst with Forrester Research: ”The studios don’t benefit until the majority of theaters are converted, since the difference between cutting 2,000 prints of a film and cutting 1,700 prints because 300 theaters are digital is not that big a deal.”