Should DCI to Open It's Doors?

by Michael Karagosian
©2009 MKPE Consulting LLC All rights reserved worldwide
originally published in the 15 September 2009 issue of Digital Cinema Report

If you know anything about digital cinema, then no doubt you've heard of DCI. DCI stands for Digital Cinema Initiatives, the joint venture of six major motion picture studios to establish a shared specification for digital cinema, focusing on distribution and security. DCI has been an important player throughout much of the development of digital cinema. With that importance comes a responsibility to the many entities having a stake in the outcome. Perhaps now is the time to review the important work accomplished by DCI, and the reasons why it may be time for DCI to consider opening up its decision-making process.

Several years prior to the formation of DCI, SMPTE, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, began heading down the path of developing interoperable standards for the transition to digital cinema, an effort which continues today. SMPTE played a central role in those early days by providing a forum for debating the technologies and methods for a marketable implementation. DCI was formed a few years after the SMPTE digital cinema effort began.

The work on digital cinema began at a time that was fresh on the heels of the music industry battles over illegal online distribution. The only fact that kept the movie industry from facing the same fate at that time was that movies took much longer to download. The movie industry was about to head down the path of distributing 1st release movies digitally, and it needed to be sure that this wasn't going to put it in the same jeopardy as the music industry.

Prevention of piracy was the major, but certainly not the only, reason for the studios to band together in forming DCI. Technology guidance became its primary focus, with the organization conducting tests where needed, and documenting its decisions in a specification. In mid-2005, DCI released its Digital Cinema Systems Specification. While much of the specification validated existing work within SMPTE, DCI originated much of the guidance on content security and related equipment behavior.

In its early days, DCI was an operating entity with executive staff, employees, and consultants. As the DCI spec advanced through its many versions, these were shared among manufacturers and exhibitors, with the opportunity to meet face-to-face with DCI's executive staff to provide feedback.

But after the specification was first released in 2005, DCI ceased day-to-day operations and let go of its employees. Today, DCI operations consist of member meetings where changes to the DCI spec are decided. Over 250 "errata" have been made to the DCI spec since its initial release. While many of these errata are clarifications, substantive changes have also been made. Unlike the early days prior to the initial release of the spec, there is no staff which with to discuss issues. DCI has never engaged in open debates of its specification, but with competitive companies marketing products built to the spec, and with substantial investments made in purchasing these products, the issuance of additional "errata" without the involvement of others becomes problematic.

To determine compliance to the specification, DCI created its Compliance Test Plan (CTP). Development of the CTP began in early 2006, when DCI first entered into a contract with the Fraunhofer Institute. Fifteen months afterwards, DCI then contracted with Cinecert to reformulate and finalize the CTP, releasing version 1.0 in October 2007.

Both the specification and the CTP come with a disclaimer stating that "each DCI member company shall decide independently the extent to which it will utilize, or require adherence to" the specification or test plan. With the DCI specification, it was obvious that not all studios agreed on every item in the spec. The specification requirement for modems to be used for security key communication is probably the best known area where studios disagree. The CTP, however, provided the basis by which a pass-fail test could be applied to products. Regardless of the disclaimer, the designated testing entities only share test results with studios when a product passes 100% of the CTP. Thus, the CTP provides clear instruction as to how a manufacturer should meet the DCI specification.

For both exhibitors and financing entities, a product's passage of the CTP provides the ultimate indicator that it is worthy of investment. But what happens to that investment when the CTP changes? Today, no products pass the current DCI CTP, but the portent of this question is real. One manufacturer recently passed CTP 1.0. However, a revised CTP 1.1 was then released, which the manufacturer's product didn't pass. Such revisions put manufacturers, exhibitors, and financial entities at risk of having an obsolete product.

DCI's specification and test plan provide a substantial part of the foundation of digital cinema. But as with any foundation, this work needs to be solid. When taking into account the investments made by manufacturers, exhibitors, and financial entities, there are many stakeholders to take account of. Changes to DCI's specification and test plan may continue to happen, but should they continue to happen behind closed doors? This is the question that deserves discussion.