The bigger picture

Entertainment and media industries are gearing up to deliver digital entertainment options to tech-savvy consumers in a variety of options, including the nascent d-cinema installations

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By  Peter Branton Published  March 12, 2006

|~|kongbody.jpg|~|The majority of theatrical motion pictures are still shot on celluloid but digital technology is making its presence felt, as in the recent Hollywood blockbuster King Kong.|~|Isn’t a plastic surge protector good enough for your electronic rack or cabinet? You don’t have any detectable hum or rolling bars in your video, so the AC power to your studio should be sufficient, right? Today, the media and entertainment industries are rapidly moving to deliver a variety of digital entertainment options to the public. No doubt, technology has been the principal catalyst in this movement, particularly as various forms of entertainment, including films, cable and network television programming, music, and video games, have become digitised, easily portable, and easier to experience. In short, the transition from analogue to digital technologies has revolutionised the ways in which businesses must identify, develop, and deliver entertainment content to consumers. Although digital advances have existed for some time, it has not been until recently that these forms of entertainment have become more in demand among today’s savvy consumers. The vast majority of theatrical motion pictures today are, no doubt, still shot and distributed on celluloid film. However, that is changing with the advent of d-cinema, one of the most exciting entertainment innovations that have been discussed for numerous years, but has yet to reach its full potential. D-cinema, according to Joe Berchtold, president of Technicolor Electronic Distribution Services, is the mastering, delivery, and projection of full-length motion pictures, trailers, advertisements, and other “cinema-quality” programmes to theatres using digital technology. “The idea of d-cinema has been around for nearly 15 years, with the first public demonstration occurring in 1992,” says Berchtold. “Since that time, many companies have attempted to introduce d-cinema worldwide, but none have succeeded, due to a variety of challenges. Nevertheless, d-cinema installations are now found in a handful of theaters around the world, and there is still much interest in the concept,” he adds. Lately, this interest has significantly increased — to the point where many film studios, service providers, exhibitors, and projector manufacturers are preparing themselves for the official global launch of d-cinema. Companies such as Technicolor d-cinema, AIX/Christie, and Kodak/Barco are leading the charge to make d-cinema a worldwide reality. Until now, the viability of d-cinema has been hampered by a series of economic, standardisation, and quality issues, says Berchtold. “Previously, d-cinema was not an economically sustainable business, even with all of the benefits involved. The cost of equipment was prohibitively high, as were the costs of both the physical and electronic distribution of d-cinema film titles. Secondly, the industry could not agree on a core set of technology standards for digital files, servers, and projection equipment, or security protocols to protect against piracy. In fact, at one point, there were more than five incompatible compression formats for digital files, each of which could only operate on a single server from a given manufacturer. Finally, the picture quality of d-cinema presentations was not widely accepted by the movie-going public, nor could consumers distinguish digital presentations from those of traditional theatrical film prints,” he explains. But many of these barriers have now been eliminated, he adds. Considerable drops in the cost of digital projection equipment have occurred, and high-capacity, low-cost disk drives and satellite systems have significantly lowered the expenses associated with physical and electronic distribution. In addition, d-cinema Initiatives, a cooperative body created by the industry to establish technology standards for d-cinema, recently released its latest round of specifications, which eradicated the incompatible file architecture that plagued the market. Lastly, improvements in the picture quality of 2K digital projectors and JPEG-2000 files for digital presentations have greatly enhanced the experience associated with d-cinema. There are also different flavours of d-cinema, distinguished by the resolution specifications of the projection systems used. D-cinema, as usually defined, typically refers to systems with 2K resolution or higher, and are DCI-compliant. Electronic cinema, or e-cinema, is associated with medium- to low-quality digital projection that essentially offers the same movie-going experience as traditional theatrical film prints. For the purposes of this discussion, the term d-cinema refers only to the most high-end of digital projection systems, which, in turn, offer the very best entertainment experience to consumers. In some developing markets, e-cinema systems are being installed because the cost of d-cinema equipment is currently prohibitive. Still, Berchtold highlights three obstacles that continue to hinder the progress of d-cinema namely, the business model, operational capabilities, and financing. Much debate has focused on financing, but this list is in order of priority and difficulty. The concern over the business model lies in the sharing of the costs, but more importantly, in determining how d-cinema as a business model will overlay on the existing studio-exhibitor dynamics with minimal changes. “Today, major Hollywood film studios, equipment manufacturers, service providers, and leading exhibition chains have not yet agreed on a sustainable business model which works for all involved. With operational capabilities, the industry now functions at 99.98% performance with 35mm film,” says Berchtold. “However, studios and exhibitors must contract with trusted service providers that understand the need for higher performance, and possess the capabilities and commitment to achieving the same performance levels with d-cinema systems." "Although these three issues are not easily solved, discussions are ongoing at this moment to come to a swift resolution, and to develop a workable plan to finally move d-cinema forward,” he goes on to add. Industry specialists feel the transition to d-cinema will take place over the next 10-15 years, during which period, theatres will use both traditional film as well as digital projection systems. Regarding d-cinema in the Middle East, the four groups above recognise the region as a viable one for the concept. That being said, once the mass rollout of d-cinema begins in North American and Western Europe, it will only be a matter of time before theatres in the Middle East become similarly equipped. ||**||

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