Why Certification? - A White Paper

by Michael Karagosian
©2006 MKPE Consulting LLC, all rights reserved worldwide
March 2006, revised September 2006

In digital cinema, as with any endeavor, there are those who want to do it fast, and those who want to do it right. Competing goals are challenging to manage in the best of situations. With essential system requirements and specifications in place, the one industry management tool that remains at large for digital cinema is certification. An effective equipment certification program could make the difference between a stable marketplace for high-quality, secure products and a marketplace that eventually degrades to lower-performance products.

There are good arguments for doing it fast as well as for doing it right. Those who want to it fast are looking ahead to the day when the payment of virtual print fees (VPF) will end. (The VPF is the subsidy mechanism for digital cinema supported by studios.) Studios benefit by speeding up the end date, putting pressure on those who will finance equipment based on the VPF to rollout sooner than later. Those who want to do it right may be looking ahead to eventual emergence of acceptable 4K projection technology, but those who are content with 2K projection technology have much to be concerned with as well. It is important to adequately test equipment performance and reliability in day-to-day cinema operations prior to an extensive full-scale rollout. It's also important to get system integration issues right, including the security of exhibitor business data when enabling 3rd party system monitoring and VPF collection through external network interfaces.

The Digital Cinema Initiative's (DCI) System Specification released in July of 2005 provides an extensive outline for system performance expected by motion picture studios. Not widely understood is that details of many of the provisions of the specification are still in development within the Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers (SMPTE) DC28 Digital Cinema Technology Committee. Digital cinema equipment available today generally reflects older drafts of SMPTE documents, but not current drafts. Thus, present-day interoperability tests are based on standards-in-progress. New interoperability efforts will be needed when attempting to rollout equipment based on final standards. This demands a long-term effort among manufacturers, and can be confusing to users seeking assurances that the technology is stable.

To further complicate matters, many manufacturers and system providers promote their equipment and systems as "DCI Compliant." This is easy to claim, as DCI has no mechanism for approving or refuting such promotion, and it is unlikely that they ever will, as the term "DCI Compliant" has not been registered as a trademark in the US or anywhere else in the world. The studios that formed DCI have also confused the meaning of "DCI Compliant" through a provision in the legal disclaimer at the head of the DCI System Specification:

"Each DCI member company shall decide independently the extent to which it will utilize, or require adherence to, these specifications."

Not surprisingly, the lowest common denominator has prevailed, with the result that "DCI Compliant" means little more today than "encoded with JPEG 2000."

System security is a reasonable concern with any digital technology. The DCI specification calls for secure components to meet specific levels of the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) 140-2, Security Requirements for Cryptographic Modules. This standard is issued by the US government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), for which approximately a dozen laboratories in the US, Canada, and Europe are accredited as test sites. While it may seem straight-forward to require a US-government security standard for US-generated content, image the difficulty in enforcing this standard for German-generated content in German cinemas. If digital cinema is to be truly international, there must be a means by which this standard is enforced around the world.

In general, while a tremendous body of work is being assembled describing the desired characteristics of digital cinema products, there is no uniform means to enforce compliance to any of it. With only 1% of US cinema screens converted to digital, the primary mechanism for enforcing compliance is the withholding of digital content to non-compliant systems. Withholding content can work in the US, where Hollywood content enjoys a very high percentage of market penetration, and while digital screens still have their film projectors in place. As the digital rollout grows, however, the ability of Hollywood studios to exert control over choice of systems will be compromised. Picking winners and losers when there are large numbers of products installed will invite antitrust litigation. It will also be difficult for Hollywood studios to exert control in other countries, where Hollywood content has less penetration, the business arrangements for content distribution are more complex, and Hollywood studios are in the politically disadvantageous position of being the foreign content provider.

Significantly, enforcement stands to become even more difficult when studio subsidies are no longer paid. By that time, digital equipment will be prevalent in the cinemas, and studios will have no choice but to distribute movies digitally to exhibitors around the world. As the installed base of products age and require replacement, it will only become harder to enforce a high quality level for digital cinema products. When selling high-tech commodity products into a non-subsidized market, there will be tremendous market pressure to lower costs. Manufacturers will cut corners to be competitive, and product quality will spiral downwards, all the while claiming to be "DCI Compliant."

For manufacturers, the absence of an effective certification plan is problematic even today. There is little incentive to invest in the development of high grade products when there is no mechanism to clearly differentiate compliance from non-compliance. To its credit, DCI is attempting to create differentiation through the generation of a compliance test plan, for which they have awarded a contract to Fraunhofer Institute of Germany. However, there is no confidence among equipment manufacturers that the Fraunhofer digital cinema test plan alone will solve the problem. Without a forum for engaging manufacturers to agree on best practices, and without a uniform mechanism for enforcing the plan around the world, it is not surprising that manufacturers are concerned that the results will be ineffective.

For exhibitors, the absence of an effective certification program also poses problems. Digital cinema equipment is complex. Most exhibitors do not have the internal resources for evaluating high-tech equipment, relying instead on their technology partners for guidance. However, exhibitors also need to satisfy their distribution business partners with their equipment choices. Selecting equipment that satisfies all business partners could prove problematic. Exhibitors don't want to be placed in the middle in this decision, they simply want to choose among competitive products that they know meet the needs of studios. Further, many exhibitors expect to require features of digital cinema products that are unique to their needs and unlikely to be specified or enforced by studios, and so want the opportunity to shape the industry specifications that they will have to live with.

Clearly, an effective certification program would benefit all players: studios, manufacturers, and exhibitors. The program should institute a neutral forum for shaping and managing the collective digital cinema specification. It should institute an international trademark for universal recognition of certified product, and it should employ the necessary legal staff around the world to litigiously manage the use of that trademark. It should create a home for strong industry guidance by organizations such as DCI and NATO, including industry efforts such as the development by Fraunhofer of an equipment test plan. It should provide a neutrally-managed and international certification program that ensures enforcement of the collective digital cinema specification.

These are not impossible requirements to meet. Other industries have benefited themselves by creating certification programs that meet similar requirements. There is no reason why digital cinema cannot do the same.