Roundtable Discussion On Digital Cinema

by Michael Karagosian
©2002 MKPE Consulting All rights reserved worldwide
Published in the March 2002 issue of ITEA News

Unlike the major film studios, the administrative offices of the nation's exhibitors aren't located within 20 miles of each other. The fact is that one must do a lot of travelling to visit the major exhibition chains in the U.S., and not all vendors in the digital cinema world have the time or budget to do it. Knowing this, last Fall I began to search for ways to bring exhibitors and digital cinema vendors together for a face-to-face discussion. The ITEA expressed its interest in hosting the event, and the Roundtable Discussion was born.

Held on January 7 of this year at the Hilton Universal Hotel in Las Angeles, the Roundtable Discussion on Digital Cinema proved to be a marker event. Since the room couldn't accommodate an actual round table, we made do with a rectangular one, seating guest panelists, exhibitors, and other audience members side-by-side, approximately 120 people altogether. Representatives of 15 companies made up the guest panel. These companies were a who's who of digital cinema: Avica, Barco, Boeing Digital Cinema, Christie Digital, Cinea, Dolby Laboratories, Eastman Kodak, EVS Digital Cinema, Grass Valley Group, Lucasfilm THX, QuVis, Technicolor Digital Cinema, Texas Instruments, Ultra Stereo Laboratories, and Vyvx Broadband Media. Qualcomm wasn't able to attend due to an unfortunate transportation problem, but TDC filled in. There were a few rules that the panelists were given: no PowerPoint presentations, no business discussion, and the first person to ask "who pays" would have to buy lunch for everyone. Yours truly was the moderator.

The discussion began with some down-to-earth questions regarding maintenance: How much training will be required? Who will maintain it? Who will provide the training? Each participant had the opportunity to address the questions, and the answers may have surprised some. Most felt that digital cinema equipment will be less likely to cause problems than today's mechanical projectors and platters. Some felt that their systems were so intuitive that operator training would require a minimal effort. The panelists were asked about backup mechanisms to keep screens from going dark (e.g., no picture), which, interestingly enough, did not lead to answers that addressed system redundancy. However, many vendors expressed high confidence in their product reliability, which we all hope will be supported by experience.

Other issues were raised, such as the limitations of display resolution imposed by hardware. This question was in reference to the fact that the projector is not the only equipment to have resolution limitations. Some vendors (none of which were projector manufacturers) touted that their products were forward-looking and didn't impose a limitation on resolution. A most interesting comment was that there are practical limitations to what can be provided by the studios, which in turn implies that there is no payback for exhibitors in buying higher resolution projectors than those available today.

Thomas MacCalla, CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), which oversees the Digital Cinema Lab (DCL) in Hollywood, put a fine point to the end of the discussion by reviewing the purpose of the DCL and the service it provides to the digital cinema community. Indeed, many digital cinema tests and demonstrations have been conducted at DCL, resulting in valuable experience and research for both users and vendors.

The session ended with some invited words from John Fithian, president of NATO, reminding us that for all of the technological achievement gained, there is still a long way to go on the business side. John was excused from buying lunch.