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Carmike Cinemas, the third largest US movie theatre chain, became the first to announce that it is switching its cinemas over to digital projection.

The move is expected to pave the way for a new generation of high-quality, high-tech movies while reducing studio distribution costs dramatically.

Carmike signed an agreement with Access Integrated Technologies’ Christie/AIX unit to install up to 2,300 digital cinema projection systems in Carmike’s cinemas across the US.

Carmike operates 307 theatres with 2,469 screens in 37 states.

“It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of today’s development as a major milestone for the industry and for our respective companies,” said Bud Mayo, chief executive of AccessIT.

The roll-out will begin next month and is due to be completed by the end of October 2007.

It follows the recent success of Walt Disney’s Chicken Little, which was shown in 3D in 84 US cinemas last month using a rival system developed by Dolby Digital Cinema.

Studios estimate digital could save them $1bn a year by eliminating the need to print and ship films to cinemas.

However the adoption of digital projection systems has been delayed because the six largest studios only came to an agreement on digital standards during the summer.

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