Digital Cinema Experiences Strong Growth in 2011
- a Mid-Year Report

by Michael Karagosian
©2011 SMPTE published in the September 2011 SMPTE Journal

The past year was witness to phenomenal screen growth for digital cinema. The number of digitally projected screens around the world more than doubled, to 46,000 screens in June 2011, from 22,000 screens in June 2010. As shown in Fig. 1, the majority of growth for digital cinema occurred outside of the U.S. With more than 40 3-D movies scheduled for release in 2011, 3-D installations continue to lead, totaling 29,700 in June 2011, up from 13,700 a year earlier. 65% of the world's digital cinema screens are 3-D enabled.

Growth of Digital Screens in 2010

Figure 1. The growth in digital screens around the world.

While 3-D continues to be a major driver for the growth of digital cinema, the conversion patterns for 3-D are markedly different inside and outside the U.S. Figure 2 shows that nearly all recent digital screen growth within the U.S. has been 3-D. But outside of the U.S., 2-D screen growth is beginning to lead that of 3-D screens, as depicted in Fig. 3.

Comparison of 2D and 3D Growth in US

Figure 2 (above): 2-D and 3-D screen growth in the U.S.

Figure 3 (below): 2-D and 3-D screen growth outside of the U.S.

Comparison of 2D and 3D Growth Worldwide

Screen growth everywhere is facilitated by virtual print fee financing, where for a limited time content suppliers pay a fee to assist with the purchase of equipment. As DCIP completes its installations, and the rollout period ends for the Cinedigm rollout, the U.S. growth rate will substantially slow down towards the end of 2012, at which time more than 50% of the U.S. market will be converted. Without further stimulus, the industry should expect a long late adoption cycle.

Even with the high pace of conversions, digital cinema technology still has problems to solve. Key management is high on the list. With 46,000 digital screens in the world and each screen requiring a unique key to decrypt a particular movie within a particular time frame, key management is a monstrous task that only grows larger every year. Surprisingly, the industry has yet to embrace a uniform solution for delivery of Key Delivery Messages (KDMs) and the collection of Facility List Messages (FLMs). (FLMs are used to maintain so-called Trusted Device Lists—TDLs—which contain the lists of equipment, serial numbers, and digital certificates required for creation of KDMs.) Fox remains the only studio to have published an open solution for the collection of FLMs. Ideally, for an entity to keep its so-called TDL fresh, it would communicate with a third-party device in each cinema complex. Such devices would pull the necessary certificate information from the equipment, and return it to requestors using a method such as the one Fox has published. But to complicate matters, not all servers are designed to respond to certificate requests. Security key management remains an area where the industry has much soul-searching to do.

Key management is only one element in the bigger picture of workflow management. One of the promises of digital distribution is the ability to develop efficient IT processes to assist in every step along the way, from booking to scheduling to the reconciliation of the movie rental at the end of an engagement, as pictured in Fig. 4. Such processes require content identifiers and cinema identifiers. Some studios are now using the Composition Playlist (CPL) identifier, whose form is standardized, as a content identifier. But the industry has not embraced a standard form for cinema identifiers. With the multiplicity of identifiers that abound for each site, the efficiency of IT processes is correspondingly reduced.

Digital Cinema Workflow

Figure 4. Digital cinema workflow.

When digital cinema projectors were first installed, light output was not considered an issue as equipment readily met the required 14 ft-L illumination at the screen. 3-D changed that dramatically, reducing the light efficiency of the projection system to the 15-18% range, as measured through the glasses. While there are standards for screen illumination for 2-D, there are no such standards for 3-D. The unofficial target light level for 3-D is 4.5 ft-L through the glasses, as this tends to be the practical level that can be achieved in cinemas. To standardize at that level, however, would be unthinkable. Standardized light levels for 3-D cinema are unlikely to emerge until the technology improves.

Recognizing the need, equipment manufacturers strive to improve 3-D light levels. Perhaps one of the most socialized technologies of the past year is the application of laser light sources to digital projection. Laser light sources are more expensive by a few orders of magnitude than their xenon counterparts, but they are also considerably cheaper to operate, trading opex for capex. In late 2010, Kodak introduced a licensable laser light projector design, based on DLP technology, utilizing third-party lasers and a re-designed prism to replace that found in DLP Cinema® projectors. Kodak demonstrated that its projector would be more efficient for 3-D by switching polarization at the laser, eliminating the lossy 3-D filter often found in the projector's light path.

Kodak is by no means alone in the application of laser light sources to digital projection. A different and perhaps more readily applicable laser light source is that of Laser Light Engines, whose strategic partner is IMAX. Barco also privately demonstrated its progress on laser light sources this past year, and Sony and Christie Digital are said to be in development of similar technology. The hope is that infrared-free laser light can push more light through the projector optics without introducing more heat. Regardless, creating affordable laser light is a considerable challenge in itself. In spite of these challenges, some claim we could see laser light sources enter the market within a few years.

Projector improvements of a different kind are also being sought. Sony's digital cinema projector has always utilized an internal media block, but it wasn't until the introduction of the TI Series 2 design that internal media blocks were possible in DLP Cinema projectors. Seeking ways to reduce system costs and to take control of the entire system sale, DLP projector manufacturers are now looking at ways to bring the media block and associated software development in-house. NEC has an in-house development group, and Barco acquired XDC's server and TMS group this past year. Sensing the opportunity, Kodak licensed its server and TMS intellectual property to certain projector companies, filling in any knowledge gaps that may exist. This new development could signal a major shift in digital cinema equipment suppliers in the future, with all digital cinema projector companies providing complete, integrated solutions. But heads up to those entering the software realm: solutions that address the full workflow of the environment will reign over those that focus on only one or two functions.

Accessibility took a major step forward this year as Regal Entertainment Group, the largest exhibitor in the world, committed to install personal captioning technology in its digitally equipped cinemas in the late 2012 time frame. This was made possible in large part through SMPTE standards for accessibility, pioneered in TC-21DC. These standards provide uniform, license-free and royalty-free distribution of accessibility content, as well as a standardized "plug" at the server for third-party closed caption systems. The standards reduce the barrier to market entry for competitive accessibility products, and as a result, several new closed caption display devices have been introduced to the market. Standards also encourage innovation, as at least two manufacturers are now pursuing novel text-printing glasses that can be worn by members of the audience.

But the application of standards to digital cinema has further to go. Digital movies today are still distributed using the Interop DCP packaging format, as opposed to the SMPTE DCP format. Interop, based on early packaging work in SMPTE, was originally introduced as a stopgap method until SMPTE DCP standards were complete. However, Interop's lifetime in the field has far exceeded what was intended. To ensure a smooth transition to the more capable SMPTE DCP, the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF) has been conducting SMPTE DCP "Plugfests" since 2010. The Plugfests have been hugely beneficial, guiding manufacturers as to where improvement is needed. As of this writing, more testing is needed in the area of open subtitle support and in the area of audio. The target for the transition to SMPTE DCP distribution is now set for the 2012 timeframe.

The industry has more substantial changes ahead of it, as well, driven by Moore's Law. Gordon Moore's simple observation 45 years ago, amazingly, continues to ring true: "The number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months." The resulting exponential impact has had its effect on business models as much as on silicon. It is Moore's Law that has made possible the consumption of media in more ways than ever imagined, and it's this simple law that ultimately extends the reach of video-on-demand, a technology that is rapidly becoming a competitive concern of cinema owners.

Just as the industry experiences the impact of Moore's Law on business models, it must ride the wave of Moore's Law if not to fall behind. So it is with great interest that major motion picture directors Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson have announced productions that will utilize higher frame rates than the standard 24 frames/sec. At CinemaCon this year, Cameron demonstrated both stereoscopic 48 frames/sec, and stereoscopic 60 frames/sec (48 frames/sec and 60 frames/sec, respectively, per eye).

There is nothing new about experimentation with motion picture formats. Film has a rich history of innovative formats and frame rates, including 8-perf 70mm (8/70 format) and 15-perf 70mm (a format originally popularized by IMAX*), projected at various frame rates. Doug Trumbull based his patented Showscan* format on 60 frame/sec projection, demonstrating that 60 frames/sec represents a visual threshold for realism on screen.

Digital projection, however, has the potential to bring higher frame rate capability into the cinema on a wider scale than was ever possible with film. At least one digital projection technology today claims the ability to support 120 frames/sec, including stereoscopic 60 frames/sec. But more capable media blocks will likely be needed to put this ability to use. In the short term, we'll experience a creative experimental phase while filmmakers take advantage of the new capabilities of digital cameras and projectors. But we should expect higher frame rates to eventually find their way into mainstream cinema. Filmmakers should note that, off-the-shelf, SMPTE and DCI-compliant projection systems support 48 frames/sec in 2-D. Cinema owners should note that a large-scale transition to higher frame rates will not take place for quite some time. (i.e., if you're planning to buy a digital projector today, don't let this discussion postpone your purchase.)

The astounding adoption rate of digital cinema around the world and the ability of this technology to gracefully evolve is perfect testimony to its value. One should remember that SMPTE standards lie behind it all, for it is SMPTE where nearly all of the work required for interoperability of this new technology takes place.

* IMAX and Showscan are registered trademarks.

Michael Karagosian is the founder and president of MKPE Consulting LLC, a Los Angeles-based consultancy for business development in cinema technology. He is a 32-year veteran of the cinema industry, and has been active in the digital cinema space for the past 12 years. He served for eight years as senior technology adviser to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), and continues to consult with NATO on accessibility issues. In addition to assisting clients with business development in the digital cinema space, he led the signing of VPF deals in some territories. In the 90's, he was a founder and former president of Cinema Group Ltd., which, together with Peavey Electronics, developed and sold a complete line of cinema audio equipment. In the late 70's and early 80's, Karagosian led the development of cinema and studio products at Dolby Laboratories. He has chaired numerous SMPTE committees in digital cinema, and is the editor of mkpeReport.