The Value of Interoperability and Certification to Exhibition - A White Paper

by Michael Karagosian
©2006 MKPE Consulting LLC, all rights reserved worldwide
last updated October 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand made a record-setting $120M in box office during its opening weekend in May 2006. The president of distribution at Fox was pleasantly surprised, quoted in the press as saying that he would have been happy to match the $85M 1st weekend box office of X2: X-Men United released the same month 3 years prior. Noting that the newer title was released to fewer screens than its predecessor, and that its predecessor played to packed cinemas, how did US exhibitors bring in the 50% increase in box office?

Exhibitors respond dyamically to consumer demand. When box office sales exceed expectations, the exhibitor has the choice of turning away ticket sales, or capturing those ticket sales by moving the movie to a larger screen (if available) or adding a screen by interlocking projectors. As a former exhibitor pointed out recently, X-Men: The Last Stand would not have done as well had it been released to the same number of digital screens. The lengthy load times required of digital movies, the lack of interoperability between systems when moving entire shows, and the difficulty in obtaining working security keys to allow the movie to play on all systems, would have limited the degree to which exhibitors could capture audience demand.

Digital Cinema is young, and has a lot of growing up to do. The problem scenario above will eventually be solved, but it will require a degree of working together that has yet to be nurtured in our industry. Simply put, if we're going to expedite improved systems and an improved supply chain for digital cinema, we have to take steps that we may not be used to. This requires bringing supply chain suppliers, system providers, manufacturers, exhibitors, and studios together to identify problems, to identify solutions, and to implement them. Further, this should be a coordinated effort around the globe, not just the effort of one region. The goal is to distribute single-inventory movies internationally with the same essential functionality that we have today with film.

DCI made tremendous progress towards the goal of single-inventory content distribution and secure systems with its v1.0 Digital Cinema System Specification. DCI today is working on a test plan for its specification, which will be another step forward for the industry. But equipment that meets DCI's specification will not be enough for exhibitors. More features than those described by DCI are needed:

The problem is more complex than simply writing more standards. To be sure, additional standards are needed for these capabilities, and some of this work has begun. But we also need manufacturers, system providers, and service providers to work together in achieving interoperability and improved services. Further down the road, the interoperability effort can lead to a comprehensive certification program.

Standards, interoperability efforts, and a certification program provide a complete picture when introducing new technology. The relationships can be pictured as in the drawing below.

Triangle of Standards, Interoperability Specifications, and Certification

Figure 1. Relationship of Standards, Interoperability Specifications, and Certification
(click figure to enlarge)

Standards are documents that describe in detail how to construct particular parts of a system, usually the electronic interfaces between equipment. Standards provide the base level for interoperability. Interoperability Specifications are required to describe how standards are to be implemented. Equipment configuration and behavior has an enormous affect on interoperability. More often than not, Interoperability Specifications are not possible to produce until products actually exist and can be tested. Certification incorporates both Interoperability Specifications and Standards, and adds a guarantee to the process that protects both exhibitor and distributor. An effective certification program will insure that users purchase products that work per the specifications and standards produced. Notably, testing alone cannot provide this guarantee, as it is next to impossible for a practical set of tests to insure that every conceivable permutation required for interoperability is met.

With the temporary exception of standards directed at in-theatre use, standards for digital cinema are well underway in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). Interoperability efforts to date, however, have been largely ad hoc. Among these is the well-known "MPEG Interop" group, also known as "MXF Interop." While the manufacturers that participate in this group have strived to develop appropriate documentation, it is not a formal effort with a legal structure that allows open meetings with manufacturers, studios, and exhibitors alike.

With regards to certification, no such effort exists at this time. DCI has a test plan for equipment compliance, but compliance is only one component of certification. DCI's compliance process also poses problems for the industry, as equipment that passes the DCI test plan for one studio may not pass for another. Further, as already pointed out, DCI's specification does not have enough detail to guarantee interoperability at the theatre operations level. A comprehensive interoperability and certification program that incorporates the requirements of exhibitors is needed.

In recognition of this need, the organizational framework below was created to seed discussions.

Certification Proposal Framework

Figure 2. Proposed Certification Framework
(click figure to enlarge)

In the proposed certification program, there can be multiple Specifications and Test Plans, each organized under an independent Authority. For instance, DCI is the independent Authority for its specification and test plan - no other entity has the right to modify these documents.

Exhibitors, however, do not have a specification and test plan for those system features that meet the requirements of their business operations. These have yet to be developed.

Searching for players in the certification process, The Open Group appears to be a good choice for the Certification Authority, conducting its certification operation out of its UK office. The role of Certification Authority provides:

Digital cinema is young. More work remains if digital cinema is to truly have the value that it promises. A worldwide certification program will bring significant value to exhibitors, manufacturers, and system providers alike.