Is The Motion Picture Industry Discouraging The Next Ray Dolby?

By J. Sperling Reich | September 15, 2013 3:04 pm PDT

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Much has been written over the last several days about Ray Dolby, audio pioneer and inventor, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 80. Rather than add to the din of career-spanning obituaries of Dr. Dolby, instead let’s use his life and cinematic contributions to explore what the future of the motion picture industry might look like for those wanting to follow in his giant footsteps.

For those like me, born after the 1965 founding of Dolby Laboratories, the best explanation of who Ray Dolby was, the one that resonates the most, comes from Ioan Allen. Now a Senior Vice President at Dolby, Allen has worked with the company since 1969. In a video tribute which played before Dr. Dolby was was honored with the Charles S. Swartz Award at the Hollywood Post Alliance’s annual HPA Awards, Allen stated:

“The public doesn’t really know about Ray Dolby. He’s out there somewhere, but they’re aware of the fact that a cassette labeled Dolby sounds good. Dolby Surround sounds good…. And they’re kind of aware of the fact that Dolby on a theatre marquee sounds good. But all those things are possible because of Ray Dolby’s inventions which are at the heart of the whole process.”

This sentiment captures how I grew to know and appreciate Dr. Dolby’s achievements. As an adolescent growing up on a steady diet of “Star Wars” and Spielberg movies, Dolby was simply the logo on the marquee or newspaper advertisement that enticed me to patronize one cinema over another when both were showing the same film. Dolby was the button on the side of a Sony Walkman I would press because it dampened the hiss of analog cassette tapes. It wasn’t until I attended film school, and then afterwards, that I was properly introduced to Dolby Laboratories as a company, and more specifically, the groundbreaking work of its founder.

What Dr. Dolby’s death makes me think about most, more than any of the Oscars, Emmys and numerous awards he justly received for his innovations, is who will be the next trailblazer to make such contributions. Not just at Dolby Laboratories or in the entertainment industry at large, but more specifically in advancing the art form of motion pictures through scientific engineering and new technology.

My concern is not for film production; there will always be a Vince Pace to create next generation cameras or a Bill Warner to figure out a more efficient way to edit content. Home entertainment is also unlikely to suffer a lack of ingenuity, as some new company will always be coming up with smaller, faster and better versions of ever-evolving content mediums and distribution technologies. Motion picture exhibition, on the other hand, may be in for a dearth of innovation.

I’m saying this not only to stimulate constructive debate, but also because the idea we might be discouraging inventors like Dr. Dolby from working in our industry has been a growing fear of mine as I’ve watched the development and adoption of digital cinema. For the better part of four decades, before d-cinema was introduced to the industry, Dr. Dolby’s inventions in motion picture audio helped attract countless thousands to the cinema. Even after the advent of the VCR and hundreds of cable television networks, audiences still turned up at theatres, in part, because they offered a better viewing experience thanks to stereo and surround sound. Dolby Laboratories, and by extension Dr. Dolby, profited from their creations as marketing in the cinema helped the company expand into broadcast and consumer markets.

The industry has paid out tidy sums over the years to license Dr. Dolby’s technology and they have given Dolby, the man and the company, numerous awards and accolades. Eventually however, the number of film distribution customers dwindled to half a dozen, and evolutions in technology began to catch up with Dolby’s original work, enabling the industry to promptly adopt specifications which didn’t require the use of his innovations. In doing so, they avoided the need to continue licensing and paying for any of the company’s intellectual, patented property. Specifically, section of the DCI Digital Cinema Specification Ver. 1.2 reads:

The Packaging standard is required to be based upon an open worldwide standard. This format is encouraged to be a license-free technology. It is required to be a complete standard that equipment receiving a compliant package can process and interpret unambiguously.

To be fair, I’m being rather harsh here. For a number of reasons, not the least of which was the declining cost of storage capacity, the digital audio compression technology which Dolby became so well known for was not entirely necessary for theatrical playback. In a world where a digital cinema package (DCP) is 250 gigabytes, who cares if your soundtrack is six gigabytes instead of one? Technology moves on and replaces its predecessors. It happens. But DCI crafted their requirements to rely on open standards specifically so they could stop paying for proprietary technologies supplied by companies like Dolby and their competitor DTS.

This shunning of proprietary technology is not necessarily a negative occurrence, when it happens organically. For instance, as compact discs became the norm in the 1980s, sales of audio cassette tapes slowly and naturally declined to such a point where few manufacturers still supply them. Likewise, cassette tape players gave way to CD and then MP3 players in automobiles. With digital cinema however, the industry (and more specifically seven Hollywood studios) actively mandated the use of technology they did not have to pay for.

In certain ways it makes sense. Relying on competing proprietary platforms might require content owners to master and distribute different versions of each title, while also paying for licenses to do so. After 100 years of employing the same technology to play back uniform 35mm prints, the industry wants to ensure that d-cinema equipment will be interoperable. The DCI specification is designed to create a standard architecture onto which motion pictures can be mastered, distributed and played back.

But what if a new proprietary technology offers a markedly better viewing experience than what is presently available in theatres or at home? Would it then be worth licensing and would the industry allow it to be adopted?

The answer to these questions is “maybe”. Current examples include exhibitors licensing digital 3-D technology and object-based audio systems such as Dolby Atmos and Auro 11.1 by Barco. But take note that with object-based audio there is already a movement pushing for adoption of the Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA) surround sound format as an alternative to proprietary solutions.

This attempt to standardize object-based audio returns us to my original question of what the motion picture industry might look like for the Ray Dolbys of tomorrow. In today’s world, will pioneers like Ray Dolby set out to invent advanced technologies for cinema, knowing that if they come up with something truly visionary their financial upside could be limited by a small group of powerful entities who can mandate non-proprietary alternatives? Some innovators might look past financial rewards and allow their technology to be open-source. But what if those who follow in Ray Dolby’s footsteps choose instead to focus their groundbreaking work in a market other than motion picture exhibition in order to better profit from it?

If my fear that the latter is more apt to occur, what does that mean for the future of cinematic innovation? Ray Dolby would likely have had a great answer.

J. Sperling Reich