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Hollywood timidly welcomes new digital overlords

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Hollywood is slowly rolling out the red carpet for its new digital overlords. Paramount Pictures, the studio owned by Sumner Redstone's Viacom, will make some movies available for home viewing about two weeks after their theatrical release, instead of the typical three months. It's a small step, but one that at least acknowledges the changing tastes of consumers.

Paramount struck deals with two of North America's largest movie chains, AMC Entertainment and Cineplex, to let horror flicks "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension" and "Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" make a quicker transition out of theaters. Cinema owners have been understandably reluctant to give customers extra reasons not to get off their couches.

It has not been easy breaking the Jurassic-era model of so-called release windows. As an incentive, Paramount will hand over to cinema operators some revenue generated by iTunes and other digital downloaders. Rival chains undoubtedly will be watching, and eventually could make the arrangement a blockbuster.

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Movie-going is going out of style. The industry keeps finding ways to fend off the Reaper by enhancing the experience with sharper sound, more comfortable seating or 3D movies. Even so, U.S. and Canadian ticket sales dipped 5 percent last year to $10.4 billion, the lowest level in almost two decades. Meanwhile, U.S. sales of streamed or downloaded entertainment grew 30 percent to $1.6 billion, according to trade organization The Digital Entertainment Group.

It may take a struggling pioneer like Paramount, whose name adorns the 1948 rules separating studios and exhibitors, to shake up the system. Revenue in its filmed entertainment division tumbled 13 percent last year. Shortening the theater-to-home cycle should help save on some of the hefty marketing costs typically associated with wooing people to the movies.

The popularity of services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video also affords additional opportunities to experiment. Studios and theater owners will tread cautiously, as they usually do. After all, it has been a decade since producer Steven Soderbergh tried releasing his "Bubble" in theaters, on cable and DVD simultaneously. In Tinseltown, old habits die hard but before long it should embrace modern times.