It's Not The Projector...
An early look at eCinema

by Michael Karagosian
© 1999 MKPE Consulting All rights reserved worldwide
Published in Systems Contractor News

As anyone who was at this year's ShoWest convention in Las Vegas knows, electronic cinema is the buzz word of the film industry. eCinema, obviously coined to give it that "Internet" twang, is a name applied to an array of technology that is almost, but not quite, here. From an equipment point-of-view, the objective of eCinema is to replace film projectors, film, and current film sound storage methods with digitally-based technology. Not only are those old but reliable mechanical projectors going to be replaced, but new audio formats, and even special effects, are likely to appear. There’s more to the picture (to coin a word) than just new gear, however. The business model of the cinema is also in for a change. The future of cinema may be digital, but the world of digital will bring more than a pretty new picture to cinema.

eCinema is about the convergence of telecommunications, computing, and display technologies. It will involve new methods of delivering picture and sound to theatres, requiring new storage techniques, file servers, and new projection methods. New names to the film world, but familiar names nonetheless are making themselves known in eCinema. Names such as Qualcomm, Loral, Texas Instruments, and Hughes-JVC. Of those companies already in the film business, only Sony seems positioned to play a significant role in eCinema. New companies such as CineComm Digital Cinema and Real Image Technology have formed with the sole purpose of introducing eCinema to the world. Alliances have been announced. A lot of positioning for what many feel will be the "next big thing" in cinema.

The driving force behind eCinema is the cost of film prints. Each print, or movie, shown in a cinema costs the film distribution company approximately $2000. A print lasts a few weeks, after which it’s returned to the film distributor. The distributor may be able to recycle some of it by piecing together useable reels for secondary distribution, helping with their ROI. Still, the cost of the print is more than high enough to make alternative technologies attractive.

The natural alternative is video projection. High-resolution digital video, such as the popular D5 format, has the capacity to equal film in quality. Telecine machines, the devices that digitize film prints for video and computer-generated effects, have also become accepted for their film-like quality. In fact, it is these technologies that make it possible to see the special effects we enjoy in today’s movies. While these technologies have already been proven in the film business, video projection has never been accepted as an alternative to film projection. But that is changing. Newer projection technologies such as TI’s DLP and Hughes-JVC’s ILA have evolved to where they challenge everyday film presentations.

Which brings us to the significance of the projector demonstration back in March at ShoWest in Las Vegas, and the upcoming demonstration in June at Cine Expo in Amsterdam. At ShoWest, a demonstration print struck from the original negative was shown on a state-of-the-art Kinoton projector across a 20 x 40 foot screen. Alongside it on a similar screen was a video projection of a transfer of a print taken from the same negative and stored in D5 format. Two video projectors were demonstrated: a prototype DLP projector from Texas Instruments and an ILA-12K projector from Hughes-JVC. Without a doubt, the superior quality of the film presentation was apparent. But we should be so lucky to see a similar level of quality in our neighborhood theaters. It is the exception, not the norm, to see a print struck from the original negative over such a fine projector. Even so, the differences between the film and video projectors were a lot smaller than one would have thought. Kodak chose the material, and naturally it was selected to demonstrate the worst of video. Color palate comparisons were not bad, however, the TI DLP projector looked pretty good in this regard. Blacks were the focus of the demonstration, and it is true that video projectors have a difficult time reproducing dark shadows. But if anyone were to walk into a theatre with one of these video projectors in use, they probably wouldn’t know the difference. And that message came through loud and clear to the many film executives who gathered in that theatre that day.

So if it’s not the projector…

If video projection is that good today, then what is keeping video projectors out of the theatres? There are two significant factors at play. One is that video projection technology is not cheap. Even a state-of-the-art electronically-controlled projector today is but a fraction of the cost of a large-screen video projector. But while cost is an obstacle, it isn’t the technology killer that many make it out to be. We still havethe high cost of film prints hanging over us. Thus, more than one clever business model has been proposed to relieve the theatre owner of the cost of new equipment. Secure distribution of the movie in digital form, however, is a hurdle that is yet to be crossed. Whether the movie is distributed as a set of discs, or by means of satellite, the movie industry has to be convinced that their material cannot be copied.

Does this sound familiar? The record business was concerned about direct digital transfers when the DAT came along. There are convincing arguments that say that the record industry was wrong, and as a result, the DAT as a major consumer format was killed. But the basic economics of movie sales are different from those of music. In music, the release takes place only once within a geographic area. In film, it takes place twice. There is the release for the first run in the cinema, and then a second release 6 months later in the form of home entertainment. For many producers, the home entertainment release is as significant, if not more than the cinema release. As you can see, if quality pirating took place during the first release, then the home entertainment release would be severely stung. Make no bones about it, the movie industry is going to have a lot to say about the security of new technology.

Two methods of movie distribution have been discussed. One is satellite transmission to a centralized server-based disc array within the theatre complex, the other is disc-based distribution. For disc-based distribution, one variation would ship only one set of discs for a movie, and allow the house to store multiple copies in a central server for playback on any number of screens. The server would keep track of the play data, and transmit that information back to the distribution house so that the cinema is billed appropriately. When a central server is not available, local rack-mounted disc players could supply signal directly to the video projectors.

There are enough advantages to each method of distribution that this author expects both forms to co-exist. Satellite transmission can offer pay-for-view entertainment and other special broadcasts that could be uniquely provided for the theatre circuits. Thus, satellite transmission offers a novel way for expanding the purpose, and thus the revenue, of the cinema. Satellite transmission, however, is a high-technology replacement for a method of distribution that today only requires an overnight mail service. That’s where disc-based distribution comes in. It removes the high-technology risk factor from the distribution channel by only requiring the same overnight mail service that is already in use. Disc-based distribution may be the only alternative available to many areas of the country, and indeed, of the world.

What changes will take place in the audio formats? For one thing, we won’t have to suffer with the extreme data compression required to stuff data bits between the sprocket holes. The satellite companies say that enough bandwidth is available for a full channel compliment of uncompressed audio. These folks have to be applauded. This has to be a first for a new video-based technology, where we usually experience audio as an afterthought. But the audio signals have to be stored somewhere, and the storage medium will probably require a mild form of compression. Let’s hope we see the same care applied to the new storage mediums as the satellite companies are giving to their transmission paths!

The 5.1 surround format is the commonly used audio format in film today. (OK OK, for my Sony friends, there are a few 7.1 theatres out there, too.) The EX 6.1 format has been recently introduced with the new Star Wars release – although it is based on a 5.1 storage format and uses matrix technology to derive the extra channel. Audio formats are driven by movie producers, and when they get a whiff of the multiple discrete channel potential of new digital storage formats, we can expect more channels to appear in our listening environments. If movie producers take a tip from the world of themed entertainment, we won’t just add speakers to fill in the surround field, but we may see special effect speakers in use to support a particular sound effect location for the movie. Special effect devices could also be triggered, such as lasers, wind and smoke machines. These may not appear in every theatre, but they could appear in many of the premiere theatres about the country, further enhancing our movie experience and providing a deeper wedge between home entertainment and the cinema.

The Pro-THX division of Lucasfilm is considered the purveyor of quality in cinemas today, and it's interesting to note that they have not taken a back seat to eCinema. It's possible that THX could one day find themselves in the difficult position of having to approve computers. It's more likely, though, that they will avoid dissecting the innards of the digital systems and focus on the analog quality of the systems. In fact, THX announced their specification for electronic projectors at ShoWest, as well as their intent to certify electronic masters and digital transmission schemes in the future. As expected, their projector specification focuses on performance quality, rather than technique. As with their current practice, they will most likely continue to avoid any certification of audio compression techniques and continue with their practice of qualifying amplifiers and speakers.

If all of this sounds interesting, you might be wondering where are the opportunities? The cinema business has a reputation as a "closed set". Outsiders have a difficult time getting in. Cinema chains buy their gear centrally so that they can leverage low prices from their vendors. Equipment is shipped directly to the building sites, bypassing local dealers and installers. But the nature of the cinema installation business could shift somewhat with eCinema. Centralized servers with large disc arrays and satellite receiver gear are not in the repertoire of most technicians employed by the cinema chains. Since the economic winners in the eCinema game will be the movie distribution houses, expect them to play not only a major role in the financing of equipment, but also in the issuance of installation contracts. There may be a door open in eCinema for some enterprising installation companies.

The introduction of new technology itself brings new opportunities for home theatre. Elite installations may want to utilize the same server and projection technologies found in commercial eCinema. Prices are bound to come down for middle-to-low end video projectors as fancy new high end projectors go into volume production for eCinema. Customer awareness of the quality of video in eCinema and the potential to upgrade their own home may bring welcome new business to home theatre installers.

Even more interesting is the possibility of new venues based on eCinema technology. The potential exists for a high-end form of pay-per-view, where the same pay-per-view programs available to eCinema would also be made available to other entertainment venues, such as indoor stadiums or arenas, or high-end home theatres. New interactive venues may become possible. Unlike the film projector, eCinema technology has the potential to find it’s way into many more types of entertainment than just the neighborhood cinema.

eCinema is not just a catchy word. It’s real, and it will be upon us within the next few years, if not sooner. Witness George Lucas’ recent opening of the new Star Wars in four eCinema locations. (May the force be with him.) The interest is high, and the new players behind it are serious. Goodby film, hello digital cinema.