Standardization Kick Starts Digital Cinema

Article ImageTechno-geeks and futurists like George Lucas say that digital video-based "Digital Cinema" is superior to today's standard film-based cinema. Many beg to differ, especially when it comes to image quality. Regardless of videophiles' varying opinions on the appearance of Digital Cinema, the bottom line is the bottom line. If the distribution of feature movies to the world's cinemaplexes (now done by shipping individual film prints to each theater) could transition to digital video file transfers, the cost savings for Hollywood and the rest of the world's motion picture industry would be enormous—estimates vary from $900 million to $2.28 billion annually.

However, contrary to predictions, Digital Cinema has not taken off like a rocket. In 2004 there were only 328 Digital Cinema "screens" worldwide, compared to the 36,000 theatrical film projection screens in the U.S. alone. Many people attribute this lackluster performance to lack of standardization—the use of different projectors, image formats, resolutions, compression, etc. Anybody remember life before the standardization of the various DVD formats? Probably not, because DVD wouldn't have had much of one without standardization.

To head off an industry-wide standards battle, many Hollywood studios banded together in March 2002 to create the Digital Cinema Initiatives, LCC (DCI). Members include Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, and Warner Bros. Studios. The DCI's mandate is to "establish and document specifications for an open architecture for Digital Cinema that ensures a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability, and quality control." To this end, the DCI released version 1.0 of its "Digital Cinema System Specification" in July. The entire 176-page PDF is available on the DCI site and is already being hailed by motion picture industry insiders as a "giant leap forward" and a "major milestone." The spec addresses "transport" by simply saying, "This can be accomplished in many ways, such as physical media, Virtual Private Network (VPN), or satellite."

"It is sad but true," concedes DCI CTO Walt Ordway, "that the first generation of Digital Cinema distribution may simply replace film canisters with hard drives. Why? Well, turf problems between studios and distributors may arise," Ordway explains. But even if small, lightweight Blu-ray discs are used instead of hard disks, this would be a stopgap solution; transporting physical media is not taking advantage of the huge money-saving potential of digital content distribution. 

Fiber is the obvious transport solution for Digital Cinema, Ordway says. Yet, he points out that while movie studios could rent some big pipelines, the problem then becomes "who pays for the last mile?" Small theater owners aren't going to want to pay thousands of dollars a month for T1 (or bigger) lines. The studios are going to have to make deals with carriers such as Qwest, who hopefully, will see the advantage to compromising with the movie industry. "To me it's obvious that carriers could easily own the Digital Cinema distribution industry, taking the business away from satellites and anyone else," Ordway says. 

Other technical standards proposed by DCI include:

  • Ingest Interface = Gigabit or 1000Base-T Ethernet interface using TCP/IP.
  • Compression = JPEG 2000
  • Encryption = AES
  • Bandwidth = 307Mbps
  • Storage = enough to store three three-hour movies at 415 GB each

DCI-specified security features include DRM-style content key access management and the digital watermarking of video and/or audio. While watermarking is an after-the-fact provision that does little to prevent piracy, it "provides another layer of security," according to Reed Stager, VP of corporate licensing for Digimarc. By watermarking Digital Cinema content, law enforcement will be able to track the content and thereby track the criminal. For example, consider the possibility that an unscrupulous employee might sneak into a theater after hours to pirate a movie on videotape. No amount of encryption would prevent this because encrypted digital video is automatically decrypted in the projection process. But because the movie is watermarked, law enforcement will be able to tell when the movie was projected, the date and time, and the location of the theater by reading the watermarking in the illegal copy.

Digital Cinema is a going to be whole new ballgame for industry professionals, says Ordway. "Studios are going to have to come to grips with new issues both technical and political," he says. "There's going to have to be an educational process that's going to take a couple of years." But make no mistake—Digital Cinema will be coming to a theater near you soon. There's just too much money at stake for it not to.