Digital Distribution to Cinemas: Progress Report

Digitizing the multiplex

A technology consortium called the Digital Cinemas Initiatives (DCI), created by the major Hollywood studios in early 2002, is finally nearing completion on a set of technical recommendations that is intended to rally the industry around a single technological standard. A few details remain to be completed, largely dealing with securing the files against unauthorized copying while in the theater. But the fundamental technology specifications, based on the JPEG 2000 video format, have now been chosen.

The DCI’s work is expected to be endorsed relatively rapidly by official film standards-setting bodies. Equipment makers such as Texas Instruments and Sony are already scrambling to make projectors and network equipment that complies with the group’s early specifications.

Studios see this as a multimillion-dollar boost to their bottom line. Today they create a film print for every screen that shows one of their movies–about 36,000 theaters in the United States and 150,000 worldwide–at an estimated cost of about $1,000 per print. Indeed, by some industry estimates, the film industry spends close to $800 million every year on printing and distributing film alone.

[…] Industry observers say the fact that studios have been able to agree on a new technology is a tribute to how desperately they want the shift.

[…] The new technology standard could leave at least one major digital media player on the sidelines: Microsoft.

[…] For their part, theater owners believe that the studios will likely bear at least part of the costs of installing digital projectors. In Fithian’s words, the studios’ fund would pay theater owners for a “Chevy” of a digital system. If an owner wanted a “Jaguar,” that money would have to come from the owner’s own pockets.

Theater owners have longer-range worries, however. They’re used to maintaining low-tech film projector systems that last for decades. They want equipment that won’t substantially increase their maintenance expenditures and be simple enough to be operated by minimum-wage high-school projectionists. Most of all, they want to ensure that they don’t buy an expensive upgrade that–like many other products marketed by the high-tech industry–will be rendered obsolete in just a few years.

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