Confab revisits digital cinema


For nearly a decade, ShoWest has been the place where exhibs heard about the coming of digital cinema, a new technology that has been promised to cut costs, boost business, eliminate piracy and even make a fresh pot of coffee.

But at this year’s confab, exhibs didn’t get lectures; they got sales pitches.

Seven months after Digital Cinema Initiatives — the multistudio joint venture set up to create a common technology standard — finished its work, tech companies that have been waiting patiently for years are plunging in. From event sponsorships to floor booths to multiple panels and luxury suites, exhibs couldn’t miss the message that digital cinema is real and rolling out.

“This is the first year we’re saying it is finally happening,” boasted National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian. “It’s the biggest technological revolution in this business since the advent of sound.”

Amid the hard sell, it’s understandable if exhibs are also confused about exactly what they’re buying and from whom. Among the vendors at ShoWest were projector manufacturers like Christie and Sony; chipmakers like Texas Instruments that power many projectors; manufacturers of the servers that store and manage digital cinema files like NEC and Dolby; and integrators Christie/AIX and Technicolor, who promise to deploy and install d-cinema equipment for just a monthly maintenance fee and a 10-year contract.

Beneath the confusing crossover of vendors lie a few key questions exhibs considering d-cinema faced for the first time at ShoWest:
Should exhibs go with the Texas Instruments-powered 2K projectors, which are tested and proven, or Sony’s not-yet-deployed but higher-quality 4K projectors?
Should they sign up with Technicolor or Christie/AIX to install d-cinema systems or put together a plan on their own, as AMC, Cinemark, Regal and others are doing?
Which of the many companies selling servers — which store digital movie files at theaters — should they pick?
And what, of course, will the benefit of it be?
Execs at Ultrastar Cinemas, the first chain to go all-digital with Christie/AIX’s deployment plan, say they’ve seen tangible results on the front and back end. “People really respond to the message that our films are ‘all-digital,’ and we also have a much easier time managing our prints without worrying about exactly how many copies we have and where we are moving them,” noted Alan Grossberg, president of Ultrastar.

But Ultrastar’s experience also shows the challenges exhibs still face. Chain has to keep film projectors next to most of its digital projectors, since studios aren’t yet releasing all their movies in digital format. That’s expected soon, but for now, Disney and Fox are the only ones committed to releasing every movie in digital.

Even though the studios aren’t quite there yet, the tech companies behind digital cinema came into ShoWest with a slew of new announcements — hardly a coincidence of timing — they hoped would prove their early success: AccessIT is raising $51 million more to fund the rollout plan of Christie/AIX, its joint venture with Christie, which also announced a new deal to deploy 67 d-cinema systems to Galaxy Theaters; NEC and Barco have both been selected to provide projectors for Technicolor’s beta test of digital cinema systems; Dolby is beta testing its servers at a handful of theaters along with ones it already installed as part of Disney’s 3-D projection of “Chicken Little”; and Sony has finally unveiled a complete d-cinema system to work with its 4K projectors.

But beneath the hype, insiders admit there’s still plenty of reason for caution. While DCI finished its work in August, some technical details are still being finalized. Most notably, a content protection standard called Cinelink 2 was just completed, and TI has to make new chips for projectors that can decode it. Those aren’t expected to be ready for a month.

Also still to be finalized: which security system will be used on digital prints to prevent pirates from using camcorders and other means to get copies onto the Internet and bootlegged DVDs within hours of screenings.

And the final question everyone’s waiting on: Just what equipment will be considered up to snuff by the major studios? Even though the DCI standard is set, there isn’t yet a formal approval process through which manufacturers can prove they have fulfilled all the requirements.

DCI in February contracted with the Fraunhofer Institute out of Germany to produce a certification test plan. But the org hasn’t even announced how it will test equipment, let alone started to certify anything.

If the major studios decide a piece of equipment doesn’t meet their standards for quality or, most importantly, antipiracy protection, they won’t provide their films, making a d-cinema system essentially useless. Exhibs are thus looking for guarantees that if they install a piece of equipment, every studio they want to work with will provide films for it.

“Right now we are searching for things to point to prove we are DCI compliant,” said Tim Partridge, senior veep of Dolby’s digital cinema group.

So for now, studios are simply agreeing to provide their films for certain systems based on their own individual evaluations. Every studio except Paramount and New Line has signed deals with Technicolor and/or Christie/AIX to provide their films in digital format. While New Line seems to have a wait-and-see attitude, Par is expected to sign so soon since Jim Tharp, studio’s new domestic distribution topper, made a deal with Christie while at DreamWorks.

Story courtesy of Variety


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