The Digital Divide

Since Attack of the Clones exited cinemas two years ago, few American exhibitors have taken on new digital cinema installations – but the story seems different overseas, where a number of companies have been making d-headlines.

Moviegoers in China last April who wanted to see Bugs Bunny and Pepe Le Pew’s new movie on the big screen didn’t just have the option of seeing them in a digital cinema. It was their only option.

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In a move that garnered worldwide attention, Warner Bros. unleashed Looney Tunes: Back in Action there without a single print or film projector. Utilizing a number of the nation’s 54 public auditoria equipped with high-end Digital Light Processing Cinema (DLPC) technology, the release marked the first time a Hollywood studio had opted for digital-only distribution and presentation. (As a bonus, because the Chinese government allows an unlimited number of revenue-sharing digital titles, Tunes carried the added benefit of not counting against the nation’s annual cap of 20 foreign 35mm releases.) The idea of a digital-only release of a major motion picture in the United States, meanwhile, still seems years, even decades, in the future.

Largely overlooked at the time, however, was the fact that China’s Looney rollout was small, isolated – and unique. China Film Group (CFG), the government agency that engineered the all-d release, reportedly has no current plans to exhibit another U.S. release this way.

Some reports are even more misleading. Over the last two years, while exhibitors installed new DLPC equipment in only 15 public North American auditoria (bringing the continent’s total to 88), reports of dramatic d-cinema activity overseas have been pouring in:

  • India taking lead in digital cinema: By year’s end, country to have more screens than U.S., boasted a headline in Variety last November.
  • Brazil could soon have the largest network of digital cinemas in the world, gushed a headline in the United Kingdom’s Guardian Unlimited last December.
  • Ranked second in the world in terms of digital cinemas, China is eyeing building 2,500 more such cinemas within five years, confided a February story on the English-language China View Website.

What, a casual industry-follower might ask, is going on out there? Have digital cinema’s files, servers, studios, consortiums, governments, and, finally, stars, somehow aligned for every land mass except North America? Have Asia, Europe and Latin America, beleaguered by piracy and a paucity of celluloid prints, taken U.S. exhibition’s spot in the digital-cinema vanguard?

Confusing Terminology

Answering that last question is tricky, say experts, because digital cinema means different things to different people, and too many compare apples to oranges.

  • The Variety scribe put India just five d-screens shy of surpassing the United States, and already soaring beyond China. But India’s digital cinemas do not use the costly DLPC projectors U.S. and Chinese exhibitors use to screen major motion pictures. India’s exhibitors are using far less expensive non-celluloid projectors (commonly known as electronic projectors or e-projectors), much like those often used for U.S. pre-show cinema advertising.
  • Similarly, the expected 100 Brazil digital cinemas described by Guardian Unlimited are expected to use an MPEG 4 compression system with Microsoft Windows Media 9, a system generally rejected by Hollywood as a viable standard for replacing 35mm.
  • As for the China View story, sources indicate the announcement is misleading because all 2,500 of the more such cinemas will actually utilize LCD projectors and TiVo-like servers, also similar to U.S. cinema advertising systems.

If you say ‘I’m a digital cinema,’ there’s nobody stopping you from saying that, even if you have a $2,000 Sony projector, and I wouldn’t go so far as to argue with that person, says Bill Mead, creator of the DCinemaToday Website. He points out that the term digital cinema is comprised of two very generic terms and that even a cinema owner projecting a DVD can legally and legitimately claim digital status, because he is technically correct.

Unfortunately, many engineers and executives involved in the fast-growing field of digital movie distribution and exhibition simply don’t see it that way. They prefer the terms digital cinema and d-cinema be used only to describe expensive, ultra-sophisticated equipment like DLPC’s, while the terms electronic cinema and e-cinema be used to describe lower-end, less expensive non-celluloid equipment. (Even among these professionals, however, there is often confusion as to whether d-cinema should be considered a subset of e-cinema, or an entirely separate category.)

Too many journalists seem not to be buying into the professionals’ terminology – while too many laymen are simply confused by it. Using the dictionary definitions, all DLPC systems can be described as both digital and electronic, and so can all of DLPC’s cheaper and less-sophisticated cousins.

One way to abate much of the d-confusion, says Mead, would be to use the term digital cinema more sparingly and the term DLPC more frequently, since only projectors utilizing DLPC technology are currently authorized to exhibit first-run major studio releases worldwide.*

Mead admits his is only a temporary solution, since the major distributors will almost certainly eventually allow exhibitors to use sophisticated, non-DLPC technologies – Sony’s anticipated 4K system, which uses SXRD chip technology, is a likely example – to exhibit their movies digitally. Another term (High Performance Digital Cinema? 35-Comparable?) could emerge to describe DLPC and other, emerging formats that strive to mimic 35mm.

Germ of Truth

But even when one sorts out the confusion precipitated by the term digital cinema, there is no question that, over the last two years, far more new DLPC systems were installed overseas than in the United States.

Since the May 2002 release of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, North American exhibitors have equipped only 15 auditoria with new DLPC projectors. European cinema owners, over the same period, equipped 21. Asian exhibs equipped 90 and, in March 2004, Asia overtook North America as the continent with the most DLPC-equipped public auditoria.

Insiders agree that the stall in the United States is largely a reaction to the formation of Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). Created just two months before the Clones release, DCI is a consortium of seven major movie distributors charged with recommending technical specifications and brainstorming business models.

The studios that formed DCI are excited about the idea of 35mm-comparable digital projectors because they would save distributors the cost of striking celluloid prints, an expense of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Cinema owners, however, have been slow to buy DLPC projectors because they’re generally three or four times more expensive than their celluloid counterparts.

Since the formation of DCI in 2002, most U.S. exhibitors have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, hopeful that DCI will be able to engineer a plan whereby distributors, which would benefit most from the switch, can somehow subsidize d-projector installations.

John Wolski, Loews vice president of projection and sound, says that although his circuit leads the d-pack domestically with 17 DLPC installations (he is careful to point out that all the systems were donated by 3rd-party players), the circuit’s number-one motivation was to test the systems and work out the kinks before a major rollout. But until a business model is set, the circuit has no plans to move forward. Aside from a 2K installation made in the spring that will be used solely for industry screenings, the circuit hasn’t installed a single DLPC projector since DCI’s formation.

Regal Entertainment Group (REG), the world’s largest cinema chain, has installed more than 5,000 non-DLPC e-projectors as part of its advertising and alternative content (business meetings, concerts, etc.) network, but operates only four DLPC projectors. The only thing that will increase the amount of digital cinema-quality projectors will be the development of a studio-funded nationwide deployment and financing plan, says REG co-CEO Kurt Hall. Until then, the business model makes no sense for an exhibitor given the cost of these higher-priced projectors.

With the June announcement of DCI’s final technical specifications, the last remaining obstacle blocking a full conversion remains a viable business model, says Doug Darrow, business manager of Texas Instruments DLPC products. There really aren’t any technical questions anymore, and we’re getting close to the resolution of the business model question, he says. After that, it’s a question of, ‘How fast does the industry want to go?’

Subsidies Overseas

So if most American exhibitors have been waiting for a business plan, why haven’t their counterparts overseas?
The simple answer is most exhibitors outside North America haven’t been as patient as their Yankee brethren.

While 113 Asian auditoria with DLPC is not inconsiderable, these facilities continue to represent a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of cinema auditoria that dot the planet’s largest land mass.

Meanwhile, most of the exhibitors who have implemented DLPC equipment during the DCI era are taking advantage of subsidies engineered outside of DCI.

D-cinema subsidies are nothing new to U.S. exhibitors. During the Clones rollout, says Screen Digest analyst Patrick von Sychowski, the bills for at least two thirds of U.S. DLPC installations were footed by 3rd-party operators like Technicolor or Boeing. Many very familiar with the digital cinema landscape go further, indicating doubt that even one U.S. exhibitor ever paid full price for its DLPC equipment.

Overseas exhibitors during the Clones era, however, paid for their (much smaller number of) DLPC installations mostly by putting their hand in their own pocket, according to von Sychowski. Since that time, execs at the Belgium-based cinema chain Kinepolis say they found a better way.

Kinepolis, which operates more DLPC installations than any other European exhibitor, installed its 10th in May. All 10 installations represent joint ventures between Barco (which, like rivals Christie and NEC/DPI, manufactures DLPC projectors), EVS (which builds servers), Screenvision (which books cinema pre-show advertising) and Kinepolis. According to circuit managing director Gilbert Deley, Kinepolis plans to follow the same business model for its upcoming DLPC installations in France and Spain.

I knew DCI didn’t have the business model, but at some point we had to step out of the chicken-or-the-egg situation, remembers Deley. It was always studios saying, ‘We have committed the standards,’ and exhibition saying, ‘We won’t install until we know there are certain conditions.’

Other investments in overseas DLPC installations come from government initiatives charged with steering national economies, such as the CFG.

There are 7,000 commercial cinemas in China, according to CFG chief technology officer Chen Fei, but most are poorly equipped. The top 1,000 sites in major cities account for 80 percent of the nation’s box office, which, says Chen, makes for a very unbalanced cinema market.

Through state-owned CFG, the Chinese government has funded 100 percent of the 40 DLPC facilities installed since the Clones release.

The Chinese government realizes that digital movie technology is a good opportunity to push the Chinese cinema industry to reach [that of] the developed countries’ level, says Chen. With international standards yet to be created, he says, it’s impossible to expect private exhibitors to fund the rollout themselves. Rather, the Chinese government intends to invest in a total of 100 initial DLPC installations on an experimental basis to test their viability and work out any kinks.

Adds Jack Kline, president of DLPC projector manufacturer Christie Digital U.S.A., many Asian markets are in a position now where we were years ago in redoing all their theatres. That’s a time when you are most apt to look at new technologies because you are already in a process of reinventing your cinema industry.

Millard Ochs, president of Warner Bros. International Theatres, says CFG donated all three DLPC systems at each of the circuit’s three China sites. He adds that had the group not funded the systems completely, with a price tag reaching between $112,000 and $125,000 per installation, the circuit would not have likely moved forward on its own.

The Chinese government has taken an initiative to place a digital system virtually in every cinema in the country, and as more digital systems are in place, they really feel this is a great way to show local production as well as other types of materials and information, [such as] the Olympics and sports, he says.

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Many experts agree, however, that some governments are bankrolling DLPC installations purely for the status of having the best, and having it early. The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), a government body that promotes technology and media there, made headlines in March when it (with support from the Singapore government’s Media Development Authority) helped supply 22 2K DLPC systems to the local Eng Wah cinema chain. According to Thomas Lim, IDA director of digital exchange, a government grant was presented to the circuit in order to defray some of the installation costs.

The Singapore deployment, says von Sychowski, was designed to help achieve the government’s goal of positioning Singapore as the global cinema distribution hub for Asia.

One insider claims that a manufacturer even tried to steer IDA toward cheaper projectors, advising that 2K wasn’t necessary for smaller screens. IDA nonetheless insisted on installing only 2K DLPC systems.

When it comes to positioning their country as a leader in high technology, claiming to have digital cinema while it’s an emerging technology is a lot cheaper, and much more practical, than placing a person in orbit, notes the insider.

Where’s The Product?

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, released in May 1999, was the first movie formatted for exhibition on DLPC equipment. In the five years since its May 1999 release, only 112 movies had received DLPC releases, according to a March report from Dodona Research. The same report indicated that while 55 percent of those titles played in the United States, only 19 percent played in Brazil and only 10 percent played Japan.

This lack of content over the years, says Mead, has left a sour taste in the mouths of some overseas exhibitors. Some DLPC equipment remains switched off a good portion of the time simply because there aren’t enough DLPC facilities in certain territories to warrant the expense of adding subtitles to a digital print.

In part to explore this kind of challenge in various markets, says United Cinemas International (UCI) CEO Joe Peixote, his circuit purposefully scattered its six DLPC systems across the globe, to Brazil, Spain, Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom. During this testing phase, Peixote says he was quick to discover that the lack of digital content was the biggest challenge, most notably in the non-English speaking markets.

In response to this overarching dilemma, a handful of overseas exhibitors have begun lining up local and independent d-content in an effort to reduce their reliance on Hollywood. Peixote says he has indeed found it increasingly easy to find digital content for his Brazilian sites, largely due to an abundance of local DLPC-compatible titles provided by TeleImage, a local post-production facility.

According to von Sychowski, TeleImage has co-funded and installed seven DLPC systems throughout Brazil, including the two UCI systems, and has kept the screens well-supplied with content: local product as well as Hollywood titles that are digitally mastered in-house.

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, the U.K. Film Council announced in July 2003 plans to outfit the nation with DLPC systems in approximately 250 auditoria. Once the network of d-cinemas is in place, it is expected to function with no reliance on mainstream Hollywood product.

Designed to increase the range of cinema available in the United Kingdom, the state-owned organization will offer digital systems practically free to those exhibitors who qualify and agree to play a certain amount of specialized product each week, says Peter Buckingham, the group’s head of distribution and exhibition. The Council also plans to subsidize the creation of digitized prints the DLPC equipment can utilize.

Details regarding the scope and timetable for the U.K. DLPC rollout were expected to emerge by August.

Subtitling & Dubbing

Given how few DLPC screens exist in some non-English-language markets, Hollywood distributors have been reticent to add subtitling or dubbing to many of their DLPC-compatible masters, says von Sychowski. One magic number, he adds, appears to be 10. Until there are at least 10 DLPC projectors serving German-language territories, for example, it will not be cost-effective to add German subtitling to a movie’s digital master.

As long as it’s a single figure [1-9 DLPC installations] the studios won’t bother … if it’s 2-figured [10-99 DLPC installations] they will have to be persuaded, and it’s not until we are talking about 3-figure deployment [100-999 DLPC installations] that the studios will do this automatically.

In one of its broadest DLPC releases to date, 20th Century Fox distributed The Day After Tomorrow to nearly 50 digital screens internationally. The process was not without its headaches, says Julian Levin, the studio’s executive vice president of digital exhibition and non-theatrical sales and distribution. It was a logistical nightmare, creating the digital masters, putting together all the language and subtitled versions that are required around the world, he explains.

Still, many within the industry foresee a time when a single digital master will be distributed to high-performance digital cinemas all over the world, regardless of each audience’s native language. DVD viewers can often, at the touch of a button, add English, French or Spanish subtitles to a movie, or change the content of the DVD’s audio track. Similarly, digital projectionists in foreign-language territories may soon, as a matter of routine, call up the appropriate embedded subtitles or language-track.

An unlimited number of languages can be added to the digital master, according to Scott Rose, chief technology officer for the Subtitling and Dubbing International Media Group. It’s not as simple as a switch of a button or selecting from a menu of languages like a DVD, he says, but the idea is the same. In order to change languages today, files commonly must be moved around on the server and registered for playout. He adds, however, that this process will one day be simplified and based on an automated playlist.

Captioning for the hearing-impaired and soundtracks designed for visually-impaired can also be included on a movie’s digital master, says Charles Swartz, CEO of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center.

DCI and the Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers (SMPTE) DC 28 committee, he says, are actively discussing how best to coordinate the implementation of all these optional digital master elements.

Digital cinema, says Christie’s Kline, has the capability of being the best thing that ever happened to cinema or the worst thing … and the difference between that is how it’s supported.