AV on the big screen

InAVate grabs the popcorn and spends a night at the movies to discover how AV technologies are used in the cinema market place.

Digital projection technology has been around for several years and is established as the system of choice throughout the domestic and commercial worlds. However the sector in which it could make a vastly significant impact, that of large venue cinemas has not yet adopted it in force, remaining with 35mm projection equipment and the old technology of multiple generation print copies and manual delivery. This is not because the equipment is unavailable for this level of presentation; manufacturers have offered projectors with sufficient brightness for several years. The issue have been more to do with the commercial implications and finding a viable business model that allow the massive investments in new equipment to be made.

The Hollywood blockbuster film industry generates billions of dollars each year and is extremely well established. Transition to digital is seen as beneficial and something that will happen. Glenn Wastyn, Marketing Director for Digital Cinema at Barco has been involved for several years: “The industry sees a transition to digital as inevitable and to everyone’s benefit in terms of ease of distribution, security and broadening of material, but the key question is how and who makes the financial commitment and what the business model should be. The investment needs to be made at the point of display in new projectors, whilst the saving is at the point of distribution.”

For every movie it costs $1500 to make and distribute a print. Multiply that by the number of copies required for a major blockbuster and it adds up to about $15m in distribution costs. Digital distribution will reduce this to $200 per copy. But to achieve this requires investment of around $100,000 per screen. This imbalance has been the sticking point until fairly recently with the introduction of the Virtual Print Fee (VPF). VPF also comes with a guarantee that the producers will make digital copies available, allowing cinemas to install equipment with confidence that it will be used.

Jerry Murdoch, Sales and Marketing Director of Sound Associates, however sees some problems with the VPF model: “It has been a long time coming and in essence will be a great catalyst to set the market going, but at the moment there are only three distribution company signatories and no exhibitors to date. This, or another model such as ‘top-slice’ where exhibitors pay less for a digital print than a film one are crucial to the deployment of digital cinema.”

Whilst VPF is seen as largely responsible for kick-starting digital cinema generally, there is a plethora of government funded initiatives that are helping. Norway is leading, with almost all cinemas adding digital projection equipment funded by the government. In the UK 240 screens of varying sizes have been digitised by the addition of digital projectors and servers funded by the Film Council’s Digital Screen Network. This is a strategy aimed at “broadening the range of films available to audiences throughout the UK and especially improving access to specialised (or non-mainstream) film.”

Initiatives such as this are certainly helping, however the general machinations of individual governments across Europe are adversely affecting the roll-out of digital cinema. Qube Cinema is the European arm of the successful Real Image company that provides end-to-end cinema operations in India and supplies encoding and player equipment to cinemas. Nigel Dennis, Head of European Business Development for Qube Cinema, comments: “Whilst some government bodies greatly assist in developing digital cinema in their respective countries, a lack of a pan-European standards and procedures is holding up the process by causing exhibitors to delay their investment until common standards, practices and funding mechanisms are in place.” This is unsurprising given the matrix of distributors and language variations required for each film.

As a result, Qube has achieved success by producing equipment that will uniquely operate with multiple formats. Their film encoder, QubeMaster, works to produce JPEG2000, MPEG, Windows Media 9, VC-1 compressed material from an impressive range of inputs, mirroring the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) Object Model. Including encryption and key generation that is crucial to the secure distribution of content to the exhibitors. Qube XP players receive and playout the range of formats for final presentation on digital projectors.

Along with servers for the play-out of blockbuster and other films, digital systems are used for the e-cinema and pre-show market. These present other types of content: trailers, advertising and information sequences and are prepared in a variety of formats. Sometimes these are used as a stepping stone to full d-cinema installations on the main screens and are also encroaching into other areas within cinema multiplexes. LCD projectors and large plasma screens are used on a widespread basis and even holograms have been used in foyers, in case linked to a main screen advert for Intel. Anders Løkke, Marketing Director for projectiondesign: “There is an enormous demand for digital projection systems outside the mainstream Hollywood film projection for pre-show and alternative content; material that is not covered by the DCI security standard and we are addressing this market with a range of e-cinema projectors from 2 to 10,000 lumens capable of 1080p resolution. These sit side-by-side with the d-cinema projectors in the projection rooms. We also have 3-D options on all the projectors to prepare them for the new content as it becomes available.” Advertising opportunities within digital cinemas are also evolving. Nicolette Homes, Commercial Director for Carlton Screen Advertising: “Our advertisers will be experiencing a number of advantages with digital cinema including lower costs with faster deployment as the adverts do not have to be converted to 35mm film, together with the wider market appeal brought about by additional and specialised content. We have worked with them to provide suitable adverts to be played during special event presentations such as the Rugby World Cup, Formula One and other events.”

Currently there are around 5500 digital screens in cinemas throughout the world with an expectation of a further 6500 to 7000 installations due over the next year. The rapid expansion is attributed mostly to the VPF scheme. Major manufacturers of digital projection equipment are responding to this by aggressive marketing and pricing of their products. Odeon Cinemas are currently undertaking a programme of converting all their 1700 screens to digital. This includes the provision of a content ingest server, local network and digital projection equipment at each site. Tender responses are currently being evaluated from large suppliers of d-cinema equipment and services to achieve this, and plans are well under way to meet a three to five year roll-out plan across their properties, starting with 800 located in the UK. Gerald Buckle, Digital Development Manager: “Now that the VPF scheme is showing its first signs of success to enable funding and payment mechanisms to be put in place, the environment is set for rapid growth in the digital film industry. This is supplemented by the use of cinemas to show alternative programming such as live concerts and business-to-business networking which we have been testing for some time. The use of satellite transmission to cinemas will make this possible and it is a longer term intention to establish a central network centre to manage content distribution which will utilise a satellite link as part of its network.” One of the major issues seen by cinemas showing alternative content is the plethora of formats with which they have to operate, including various forms of DVD, hard disk, HD-SDI; the broadcast standard HD format, HD Cam and others. Gerald Buckle: “We currently have to convert between formats on an ad-hoc basis, depending upon what is presented to us and required at the site. One of the intentions and aims of the central network centre is to handle cross conversion to make it a more streamlined operation.”

With the growth and rapid increases in quality of home cinema systems with the introduction of Blu-ray and HDDVD players along with high definition broadcast, viewers are becoming familiar with the superior quality of digital projection. Sony supplies digital projectors into cinemas and is currently the only company offering the higher resolution 4K unit. "The aim is to differentiate cinema from the growing number of HD home entertainment systems by delivering equipment that meets the DCI's forward looking 4K standard. With four times the resolution of HDTV and the equivalent 2K standard, audiences can enjoy a more immersive experience. We have already supplied our systems in volume in the US and it is interesting to note that recent restorations of classic films are being carried out at 4K so the format is becoming a de-facto standard," said Mark Clowes, head of Cinema for Sony.

Along with high resolution, the commercial cinema world is seeking something new as a saviour for the industry to tempt consumers out of their homes and into the multiplex. This is set to be 3-D cinema, which is enjoying a fast-growing rise in interest and installation throughout the world. Odeon Cinemas has recently announced their plan to include a 3-D capability on over 500 screens using Real D technology. Real D is a passive stereographic system using filter glasses and a special aluminium-coated projection screen, already installed in over 300 screens in North America. Images are split between left and right at a rate of 144 times per second in an image polarising modulator attached to the projector head. Experience has shown that the cinema-going public welcomes 3-D projection, with a recent film taking twice the gross takings of its 2-D version.

As far as sound reproduction goes, digital sound is already well established in the cinema industry and has been ever since Star Wars was distributed way back in the late 70’s. Jerry Murdoch: “We have been installing ultra-reliable digital sound processors of roughly the same type for many years. What is becoming apparent is that new forms of content have significant impact on the way sound is recorded and relayed compared with music that was recorded for Hollywood films. For example a recent live Genesis concert that was presented via satellite in UK cinemas had to be specially mixed; there were two desks side-by-side at the concert, one for the local sound system, the other for the remote presentation. We, as an industry are getting to terms and understanding the implications of this.” Whilst digital video projection is opening up the depth of opportunity, the availability and pervasive nature of digital sound is doing much to ensure increase in breadth: Simon Bull, National Sales Manager at Martin Audio: “Sophisticated sound systems matched to individual locations enable multi-purpose venues to evolve, for example a new church installation in Islington provides a resource offering greater scope and facilities for the local community.”

Clearly there is a massive market for all things digital within the cinema market as new opportunities, technologies and initiatives open up. The message that is apparent from most of the players is that it is set to explode and that those with flexibility and creativity will succeed. The industry is taking shape but there is still a long way to go.

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