Thomson's Technicolor Digital Cinema division has opened a digital cinema research and equipment test lab, supporting the entertainment industry's move to shed celluloid for bits and bytes.
Originally built for Disney Animation, the Technicolor Digital Cinema building now houses two projection rooms and digital cinema technology center with networked projectors and servers.
Upstairs in the control room, projectors from Sony Electronics, Christi Digital Systems, Barco Digital Cinema and NEC undergo a series of 144 compatibility and performance tests. About 34 have been performed.
A handful of servers shelved on racks from Dolby, Doreme Cinema, Kodak Digital Cinema, QuVIS and NEC that can store a combined 15-terabytes are being closely analyzed, too. Approximately 60 projector and server configurations are being tested.
For seven years Technicolor Digital Cinema has tried to make the digital cinema model work, spending the last year developing the business and finance plans. Joe Berchtold, Technicolor Electronic Distribution Services president, dispenses a pearl of wisdom. "This is about an industry in transition," he said. "It's fundamentally changing how business is done."
Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. executives said their respective companies would release nearly all movies this year in digital format, making them available for distribution either by broadband, hard drive or satellite to theaters.
Distributing digital movies via satellite would prove the most efficient and cost effective because companies can transmit movie files to multiple locations simultaneously.
Maybe so, but there is still work to do, Berchtold told reporters who gathered on Wednesday at the Burbank, Calif., facility to get a rare glimpse at the site and equipment.
For starters, compressed 250 gigabyte files take 20 hours to transmit by satellite. These files uncompressed are 2 terabytes, Berchtold said.
Cameras weren't welcome in the lab, because some equipment manufacturers plan to launch the products next month at the National Association of Broadcasters conference. Reporters were given permission to record the question and answer session. (Comments from Berchtold; Julian Levin, executive vice president at 20th Century Fox; and Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. in podcast form to listen to or download are available here. )
A host of problems, however, remain. Berchtold said there are "substantial incompatibility and technology issues that need to be resolved." Some have been identified, such as piracy and projection uniformity across the screen, but there's much more testing to do before perfecting systems.
Preliminary tests reveal servers and projectors work well, but are not ready for every theater. "Server companies have interpreted DCI specifications differently," said Todd Hoddick, Technicolor Digital Cinema director. "Security is another area that requires work."
Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) specifications approved last summer, although comprehensive executives insist, hasn't solved all problems. The fact Technicolor Digital Cinema encoded a file on a JPEG 2000 encoder that wasn't able to run on some of the lab servers confirms interoperability needs work.
Customers need to known they have continual support in the event a system goes down or a security key doesn't unlock the digital rights management software in "Capote" or "Star Wars," for example, by the 6 p.m. show. From facilities in Burbank and Atlanta, Technicolor supports the technology with continual monitoring services, immediately responding to an unexpected hardware or software failure, or having a back-up plan to generate a numeric code that unlocks encrypted media files in the server.
"The systems must work as reliably as film, because if they don't they'll be rejected," said Julian Levin, executive vice president at 20th Century Fox.
Don't think for a minute these "temporary" glitches will stop deployments. Century Theatres Inc. plans to have networks, projectors and servers in 120 theater screens within the next few months with help from Technicolor Digital Cinema.
Consider Warner Bros grossed "more than $170 million from IMAX screens," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros, a partner with Technicolor for more than 75 years. "Polar Express in 3D brought in more than $60 million."
A full transition to digital from celluloid won't happen overnight. There are 36,000 screens in the United States, more than 100,000 globally. Ultimately, Technicolor Digital Cinema plans to equip 5,000 screens within the next four to five years, and 15,000 screen by 2026.
Theaters will eventually have multiple configurations of network, projector, hard drive and servers to choose from. Systems will likely connect the 29 automation systems that control lights and curtains within the theaters.
Integration with distribution, movie booking systems and other back-end platforms are being worked on to alert studios and distributors the movies arrived.
Tests to determine interoperability between 2K (2048x1080) and 4K (4096x2160) pixel resolution projectors should provide movie studios with the one-file compatible systems they seek.
Today, the Technicolor Digital Cinema supports DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, Warner Bros, New Line Cinema, Twentieth Century Fox and The Weinstein Co.