One World Standard?

by Michael Karagosian
©2005 Karagosian MacCalla Partners, all rights reserved worldwide
Published in the June/July 2005 issue of INS Asia Magazine

Possibly the greatest challenge in moving from film to digital cinema is to make the transition as smooth as possible. Maintaining "business as usual" is the requirement commonly heard from both distributors and exhibitors. There are many factors that affect business as usual, but "single inventory content" is the often stated technical goal -- an effort to match the world-wide interoperability enjoyed with 35mm film today.

Single-inventory content requires system interoperability at the distribution level. It requires that identical content preparation methods be used for compression, encryption, packaging, image resolution, and so on. Assuming that everyone is willing to buy equipment that meets a particular specification, one might think that achieving world-wide interoperability is well within reach. However, economics and politics could alter this assumption. To complicate matters, the means to create interoperability improves as technology marches on and as experience with this technology grows, shifting the ground the industry stands on. World-wide single-inventory for digital cinema could indeed be a challenging goal.

Uniformity in technology is usually managed through standards. While the standards effort for digital cinema has been productive, it has not been so productive as to eliminate a variety of competing and incompatible systems in today's marketplace. To add confusion to the effort, industry guidelines have not been stable. For example, a long-awaited specification from Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a consortium of major motion pictures studios in Hollywood, has been evolving for the past 3 years. There is a good possibility that it will be finalized by the time you read this. Regrettably, it is doubtful that it will lead to the "single inventory" goal so sought after. The guidelines and standards in process tend to increase system complexity and cost, making alternative technologies attractive. High definition video systems, for instance, can be cost effective and are readily available.

Digital cinema systems are considerably more expensive than their film counterparts, both to buy and to operate. In considering how cinema business owners can afford this equipment, it's useful to understand digital cinema funding. In the US, cinema owners expect US studios to subsidize digital cinema equipment purchases, bringing purpose to the DCI specification. Elsewhere in the world, such funding will likely come from governments. With the focus of US cinema systems on very high quality images and highly secure systems, those governments who wish to fund digital cinema may not be so keen to invest in technology that primarily benefits the US market. Such countries may be more likely to invest, in the near term, in high-definition facilities that stimulate both their motion picture and broadcast industries. Some countries may also find it advantageous to move quickly and establish their digital infrastructure, before world-wide standards call for a more diverse investment in disparate technologies.

China, as an example, has been a pioneer of digital cinema in the Asian region. At the time of this writing, China has 182 digital screens, of which 91 utilize high-contrast extended color-space (and might I add "highly approved") DLP Cinema™ projectors. The other 91 installations employ digital cinema servers with lesser quality but very capable 3-chip digital projectors. Of the 91 DLP Cinema screens, 22 are 2K resolution, which are only slightly more capable in resolution than high-definition. All remaining screens are 1.3K resolution. Nearly all screens utilize MPEG2 servers. Altogether, with servers, this represents an estimated investment of SGD27M. However, none of this investment will meet the final requirements of DCI. DCI's requirements call for JPEG2000 compression and very specific security features, such as encrypted links to the projector that are more secure than that in commercial digital cinema projectors today.

China is not alone in its situation. Singapore's Eng Wah cinemas have installed 20 DLP Cinema 2K projectors, also with MPEG2 servers. Avica of the USA is installing up to 500 MPEG2 digital screens in Ireland, and intends to install similar systems in Italy and elsewhere. India's Real Image has installed 20 of their MPEG2 Cube servers in Portuguese cinemas. Both Real Image and Hong Kong's GDC Technology have installed numerous MPEG2 servers in Indian cinemas.

Cinema business owners in these countries are unlikely to receive subsidies outside of their government. Upgrades to bring existing digital cinema systems up to DCI requirements could take years to fund, if they are ever funded. In the meantime, these systems will need content delivered to them, and they'll need servicing. A supportive infrastructure will be developed, which, once in place, will encourage new purchases to follow existing systems, rather than follow DCI recommendations. A recent action of the Chennai, India-based Pyramid-Saimira Group illustrates the trend. The Group recently asked Taipei-based Delta Electronics to develop a new digital projector capable of withstanding the cinema environment. The projector is not expected to satisfy the golden eyes of cinematographers, but that won't keep it from producing images that please and entertain audiences.

While electronic distribution will be beneficial to regional cinema production, US-originated content still dominates the box office in much of the world. The question that remains, then, is whether US studios will deliver digital content to cinemas around the world, even if the cinemas do not follow DCI recommendations?

Between the issues of quality and security, certainly the secure nature of the digital cinema system will be of the most concern to studios. When it comes to security, however, it must be noted that "secure" digital cinema systems will not prevent all forms of piracy, particularly camcorder piracy. The best way to reduce the loss of sales incurred through camcorder piracy is to release movies day and date internationally. From a distribution viewpoint, this is most feasible with electronic distribution.

Content security, however, is and will remain a significant issue. Digital cinema systems today already allow both digital movie files and keys to be encrypted, such that neither key nor content are exposed in the clear. The content can also be forensically watermarked such that camcorder piracy can be traced to its point of origin. With the exception of forensic marking, most systems meet these basic requirements today. (Albeit not to the exact requirements of DCI.)

There is also the issue of US studio providence over the cinema playback system. At least one official in the EU recently suggested that it could be a violation of EU anti-trust law to require a cinema owner to purchase a specific type of system in order to present a movie. It is a complex subject, but the sheer desire to conduct "business as usual" will likely dictate that alternative systems will get their movies, DCI specifications not withstanding.

It seems feasible from this discussion that current digital cinema systems could be around for some time. Eventually, as these systems age, they'll be replaced by a new class of digital cinema system, possibly one following DCI recommendations. However, by the time such equipment replacements take place, DCI as an organization will not exist, and technology will have kept marching on. How digital cinema evolves over the coming years will likely not follow detailed specifications written today, prior to when actual field experience is gained with real systems. Instead, world-wide standards for digital cinema will more likely evolve as the practical wrinkles of cost, reliability, quality, and security are ironed out.

In the meantime, see you at the movies!