Digital Cinema Gains Ground

Recent alliance announcements, completed standard signal progress
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Recent alliance announcements, completed standard signal progress

HOLLYWOOD

Digital cinema may be coming to a multiplex near you sooner than you might think. Since June, a rush of announcements about new digital cinema alliances and installations signal that the the motion picture industry may have finally overcome the bottleneck of which technology to use and who will finance its implementation.

The fuse for this explosion has been the success of digital cinema presentations of the last episode of George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith," both domestically and overseas. U. S. box office figures for digital cinema theaters are not available, but by its May 18 premiere in Germany, 93 percent of all ticket sales at the CineCitta multiplex in Nuremberg were for the premium-priced digital presentation of the movie.

Digital theaters in Berlin, Paris and Tokyo enjoyed similar moviegoer interest and the New York and Los Angeles premieres of the last episode of the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy were presented through digital projection.

So despite Hollywood's current box office slump, there has been progress on the technology side that brings a ray of hope to those who believe in the digital cinema future.

ACCESS CHRISTIE

Currently, the only digital cinema projectors with a proven track record for cost-effective theatrical installation are based on DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology from Texas Instruments. In a three-chip configuration, DLP projectors provide 2K resolution from digital files fed off of servers, an image quality considered by many--but not all--to rival the projection standard set by celluloid prints.

Three projector manufacturers have licensed DLP technology: Christie, Barco and NEC. In June, the first of these, Christie Digital Systems, announced it had entered into a preliminary agreement with Access Integrated Technologies, Inc., a Morristown, N.J.-based provider of managed storage and electronic delivery of digital content to movie theaters, to create the movie industry's first digital cinema funding framework.

"Our goal is to install Christie CP2000 DLP Cinema projectors, media players and central server equipment in up to 2,500 screens within two years," said Craig Sholder, vice president for Entertainment Solutions at Christie Digital Systems, USA Inc., in Cypress, Calif. "We'll be using JPEG2000 files on CineStore central library management servers in each theater for ingest and distribution with individual playout servers dedicated to the projection heads. As much as possible, our systems will comply with the specifications of the Digital Cinema Initiative, most specifically the security requirements to maintain the integrity of our digital files."

The Digital Cinema Initiative, or DCI, is a joint venture by Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios to formulate the requirements for successful digital cinema presentation. Although the final version was not completed by press time, the DCI System Spec 5.2 released in March 2005 included both 2K and 4K resolutions.

BARCO-KODAK

Also in June, Barco, a second DLP licensee, announced an alliance with Eastman Kodak Co. to sell and support complete integrated digital cinema solutions. As part of the agreement, Barco will use Kodak color science and image management technology to expand the capability and performance of its own cinema projectors.

"We thought this would be a good marriage between the core competencies of our two organizations," said Scott Spector, executive vice president and general manager for Barco Digital Cinema. "Kodak is already the largest independent provider of digital pre-show content in North America, so they already have a networked infrastructure that can be readily scaled up to digital cinema use. We'll be able to deliver the actual MPEG-2 files on hard drives, via satellite and over fiber as different markets require."

Although Barco did not provide specific deployment goals for the new alliance, the new initiative will employ a combination of the Barco D-Cine Premiere DP100 projector and Kodak's proprietary 2k CineServer, a 80 GB MXF-compliant server.

"We have been approached by a number of Wall Street financial firms with capital available to invest in digital cinema systems," Spector said. "What is missing is a compelling business model and industry partners to manage its roll-out. That is a key factor behind the Barco and Kodak alliance."

NEC, a third digital projector manufacturer to license DLP technology has been working since May with Ballantyne of Omaha to distribute all components of the NEC STARUS digital cinema system for pre-show projection and lobby display systems. That includes the full line of NEC STARBeam iS8, iS15 and iS25 digital cinema projectors, STAR*Cor central multiplex servers, and STAR*Show screen servers.

DISNEY DOLBY DEAL

All of these alliances hope to exhibit product from any major studio that wants to release its films in digital cinema. But at the end of June, Dolby Laboratories announced a collaboration specifically with Disney Studios to install its Dolby Digital Cinema systems in approximately 100 high-profile theaters in 25 top markets. The installations should be in place for the Nov. 4 premiere of Disney's first all-CGI animated feature, "Chicken Little," rendered in 3D by LucasFilm's Industrial Light & Magic to play on Dolby Digital Cinema servers at selected theatres.

"Dolby Digital Cinema is actually a server system combined with mastering services in our Burbank office for the encoding of the feature films," said Tom Daily, marketing director for the Dolby Professional Division. "The MPEG-2 content will arrive fully encrypted in MXF-compliant files to be presented through any of the commercially available digital cinema projection systems. Most importantly, however, the Disney/Dolby arrangement will be the first studio-supported deployment of digital cinema in the world."