Digital cinema has overtaken film a lot sooner than many people might have predicted before Avatar was released, but it was probably inevitable. At latest count almost two-thirds of all domestic screens used digital projectors by the beginning of the year. That’s 25,570 screens out of a total 39,641 or 64.5%, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. Roughly half — 12,620 — of those digital screens were equipped to show movies in 3D and 244 of those were IMAX installations. The total of individual theaters was almost 5,800, and 3,028 of those were partly or completely digital. And counting. Back in mid-2009 as James Cameron was preparing to unleash Avatar on the moviegoing public in December, only a few more than 1,600 screens in the US were equipped for digital 3D as of July out of a total of some 38,000 indoor screens at roughly 5,400 locations. By the time Avatar opened there were roughly 3,000 3D digital screens. In little more than two years, the number of 3D screens has quadrupled — propelled at least initially by Avatar’s success.

Globally, digital projection was predicted to overtake film early in 2012 — if it hasn’t already — and by the end of the year 63% of all cinema screens around the world will be digital, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service. By 2015 IHS predicts that 35mm theatrical film will amount to a niche format with just 17% of global movie screens. Art houses and independent theaters will struggle to cope with the cost of conversion. According to NATO, Canada has 1,848 digital screens, and the rest of the world has 38,874. That makes a global total of 66,292 digital screens. Texas Instruments, which licenses DLP technology used in most digital cinema projectors, in early December boasted installation of more than 51,000 DLP branded digital screens worldwide — nearly double the previous year. Slightly more aggressive than IHS Screen Digest, the company predicts a full global transition to digital by the end of 2015. Conversion to digital has accelerated in Europe, China, Russia, Latin America, India, Africa, Australia and the Asia Pacific region.

The conversion to digital also has put enormous pressure on the makers of cameras and film stock, which will likely become more expensive to produce. With print production significantly reduced, labs such as Technicolor and DeLuxe have transitioned into other areas such as digital post production, broadcast production and digital delivery. Technicolor has downsized significantly and I hear no longer handles 35mm film, only 70mm (most likely IMAX). Movies are still being shot and distributed on film but demand has decreased enough that 2011 saw the end of production of 35mm film movie cameras. Three major film camera manufacturers — ARRI, Panavision and Aaton — have phased out their film cameras to concentrate on exclusively on design and manufacture of digital cameras. To remain competitive they had to because filmmakers who wanted to shoot digital were already using cameras by RED — such as David Fincher for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Peter Jackson on The Hobbit movies. Sony is another option and there are others.

Some industry professionals at first embraced digital reluctantly for aesthetic reasons — not enough depth or contrast under certain lighting conditions and issues with image detail. Preservation of digital formats also remains tricky and possibly unreliable over the long term compared to polyester film masters. Another bone of contention is 3D, in which screen illumination can be reduced by 25% or more. But projectors capable of higher-resolution and brighter images are already making their way into theaters, replacing earlier models with next generation technology. Eventually, shooting and projection rates of 50 frames per second or more, compared to 24 or 30 fps, promise an amazingly crisp image that will enhance or maybe even surpass 3D in visual appeal. Digital makes this more economically feasible because digital storage space is cheaper than raw film stock and processing which would at least double the cost of shooting with film at higher shutter speeds.

As recently as 2009 ARRI was only building film cameras by special order. It’s probably only a matter of time before the movies conversion to digital is all but complete. In a post late last year on Creative Cow, a site for movie and TV production professionals, ARRI VP of cameras Bill Russell said “In two or three years, it could be 85% digital and 15% film. But the date of the complete disappearance of film? No one knows.”