The Big Screen Experience at IBC2008

One of the best things about the IBC convention is that the massive RAI conference centre has a huge cinema and auditorium sited slap bang in the middle of it. And while the show has used it for a variety of purposes over the years, it’s actually hard to think of any purpose best fitted for it other than being the current home of the IBC Big Screen.

While other shows talk about digital cinema, IBC is always happy to point out that it built one, and during the conference it’s used by the leading suppliers in the industry to demonstrate the latest developments in digital cinema technology. That means that this year Arri, Christie, Doremi, Panasonic, PS Technik, RED and others will be highlighting just what their kit is capable of doing in its environs.

It all promises to be highly interesting too. Doremi will be showcasing its digital cinema automatic calibration system that checks DCI screen compliance; ARRI will be talking about its new ARRI QCP control tool for DCI Cinema releases, not to mention the next generation of ARRILASER film recorders; while RED will be using the giant cinema screen to show 4k footage from its RED One camera. Plus, of course, you’ve got the digital cinema screenings, which last year provided one of the highlights of IBC2007 for many delegates with its screening of U2 in 3D.

Above and beyond all that, there is also the conference strand to consider. Under the theme “New Dimensions for the Big Screen,” the conference will look at a variety of digital cinema-related topics including post production, digital mastering, and, of course, the big buzz in the industry at the moment of 3D stereoscopic imaging, where sessions will cover topics such as capturing and creating 3D stereoscopic content and the various competing means of presenting the images for exhibitors.

All of which begs the interesting question of where exactly digital cinema is at the moment. Figures suggest that of the 100,000 cinema screens dotted around the world, 6,300 or so are now digital. Six percent can still be considered a fairly impressive number for such a nascent technology, but it would be a mistake to think of them as anywhere near evenly distributed. By far the majority of those screens — somewhere around 4,500 — are in North America, and if you follow the curve upwards in the wake of the unveiling of the DCI specification in 2005, North America is building new ones at a far greater rate than Europe. In Europe, in fact — apart from the United Kingdom, which is experiencing a roughly similar rate of growth to North America — the talk is about the technology having stalled in the marketplace.

The “why” of this is complex. The European Digital Cinema Forum suggests that exhibitor members have several concerns. This inevitably starts with the cost of the equipment, though the Virtual Print Fee business model espoused by companies such Arts Alliance Media or XDC across Europe and successfully used in the U.S. is making progress. Exhibitors enter a 10-year agreement, say, which sees the third party purchase the equipment up front while they sign up to agreed service and maintenance contracts, then every time a digital print is shipped distributors pay a VPF which goes towards recouping the equipment costs (AAM estimates that around 80 percent of the costs will be thus paid by the Hollywood studios). Distributors save money on digital versus 35mm so they’re happy and, when the deal is over, the cinemas own the equipment.

Which, with the best will in the world, could be a problem for them. Technically, digital cinema is seen as pretty much a done deal nowadays at all ends of the chain, but everyone is very much aware that, despite that, it’s a developing technology and not one that’s liable to stand still. A 2k cinema projector sounds good now, but images on the IBC Big Screen are already being shown in 4k; the first 4k native film has been produced; and with the BBC, NHK and RAI showing off live transmission of the Super Hi-Vision format (formerly known as Ultra HD and a whopping 7680 x 4320 pixels with 22.1 audio), no one seriously expects 2k to be a standard that will be around for a significant length of time.

So technological obsolescence is a worry, to which has to be added the potential for ‘creep’ in the DCI standards. They also cite content availability, the complexities of the VPF model, and worries over the security process as concerns, not to mention a global economy that seems to be stumbling into recession as the U.S.-led credit crunch bites harder.

Into all this, though, steps the dazzling glitter of the promise of 3D stereo. The wild success of films such as “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour’’ and the fact that the 3D screenings of “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” made 55 percent of its opening weekend box office in the U.S. is on minds worldwide. Meanwhile, 42 percent of “Beowulf’s” opening U.S. box office last year was generated from just the 17 percent of screens that were showing it in 3D, and figures suggest that revenues at 3D screens are three times — yes, three times — what they are from conventional projection.

As carrots go, they don’t come much bigger and more orange than that. And there’s a dawning realisation that people need to capitalise on the early surge while it’s still a novelty to audiences and they can successfully charge a premium for access. Supply capacity is going to be an issue in 2009 perhaps — the success of the format has blindsided a lot of people — but the studios and post are all investing in the equipment and, as long as the revenue per screen stays anywhere near what it currently is, 3D is definitely a wave of the future.

The cinemas aren’t going to have it to themselves forever though. The last conference session on the Big Screen theme is “Unique to cinema — but for how long?” and will look at the developing roadmap that aims to take 3D display technology into the home in the next couple of years. By then, however, it’s estimated that the U.S. will have 4,000 3D screens alone, with 6,000 worldwide. All of which means that this is the year to check out 3D cinema seriously and, with all the major players in the field assembled under one giant roof, IBC2008 is undoubtedly the place to do it.