NAB: Future of Cinema Summit Weighs Unintended Consequences of Digital Progress

Digital has "overcomplicated everything," warns a Fox exec.
Courtesy of Robb Cohen
NAB Show

NAB Show's Future of Cinema Summit opened Saturday with a progress report on digital cinema — and raised continuing questions on whether audiences respond more to high-end projection systems or comfy chairs.

“As we started to move away from film and into digital [a transition that began around 2000], we were replacing a film print with a digital print. It was one on one," explained Chris Witham, director of digital cinema technology at The Walt Disney Studios. "Fast forward, we added 7.1, 3D, different light levels, immersive sound and high dynamic range. It was 'My God, what have we done?!'"

Ben Ritterbush, director of domestic digital cinema distribution at 20th Century Fox, agreed that digital cinema developments have delivered audiences new capabilities including HDR and immersive sound, but it also had some unplanned results. "[Digital] overcomplicated everything," he said. "[Every version] needs to be created, QC-ed and sent out. Every time you make a change, it's a process to manage. The sheer number of versions is difficult to manage."

As an example, The Hollywood Reporter previously reported that Star Wars: The Force Awakens required an estimated 482 different versions for its global release.

Not that Hollywood went into the transition with blinders on — far from it. But the rapid advancement of the technology made this versioning issue an unintended consequence.

For some background, the Hollywood studio consortium Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) worked from the start to address the delicate transition to digital cinema, publishing its digital cinema technical specification in 2005. Standards body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, or SMPTE (which also co-produced the Summit with NAB), then set standards to support DCI’s work, which was completed in 2009.

As a result, in the last couple years, studios such as Disney have been moving toward delivering a digital version of a film print that supports the SMPTE standard, which is known as the SMPTE DCP (digital cinema package). Witham explained that while this will not reduce the number of versions a studio must create, it could ease the process of managing and delivering these various versions to theaters. (And he didn't rule out the possibility that, longer term, it could contribute to easing the versioning process).

On the versioning issue, Dean Bullock, technology director at Dolby, asserted that there are options, but the industry needs to think differently. "We need to start inventing ways to manage and virtualize the version counts," he said. "Maybe it looks like a transit control room. We are in the entry level for moving into digital technology. We need to move toward computerization of all this. Big Data."

But speaking frankly from a theater owner's perspective, Marcus Theatres’ director of digital projection Mark Collins warned the crowd that “ROI [return on investment] are the big letters we use everyday. … For us, it’s chairs, and after that, it’s heated chairs — we’re from Wisconsin. We chuckle at it, but if the people want heated seats, we are going to give them heated seats.”

A report on the rollout of the SMPTE DCP was a big part of the session. Disney has already sent some recent films, including Beauty and the Beast, with the SMPTE DCP as a primary deliverable in North America as well as to certain theaters in international territories. It aims to make this the primary delivery method for all of its movies in North America by the end of the year. On the recent tests, Witham reported that there were not any dark screens, though there were some issues in areas such as audio routing. "Most of this can be addressed with software updates," he said. "Treat this like an IT business."

With about 40 separate territories and 24 languages, a SMPTE DCP rollout has been more fragmented in Europe, said Toby Glover, vp mastering technology and development for Deluxe Technicolor Digital Cinema. He reported that SMPTE DCP sites have been tested and completed in Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and the Baltics. Testing is underway in Denmark and Sweden, and it will soon begin in the U.K., France and Russia.

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