CinemaCon: ICTA Presents – The Unintended Consequences of Digital Cinema

By | April 26, 2015 12:30 am PDT

(“Motion seats will be the death of me.” – Un-Named Studio Executive at CinemaCon)

Joe deMeo of Barco and President of the International Cinema Technology Association (ICTA) introduces the panel session with the question, “after the [digital cinema] roll out what are we looking at?”

Carolyn Giardina, chairing the session expertly began by asking the audience some questions that illustrated how long the road to digital cinema has been (and thanks for making us feel old Carolyn!)

Carolyn: “How many remember the summer of 1999 when “Star Wars: Episode 1” became the first digital cinema release? How many remember “Chicken Little”, the first digital 3D film? How many have seen Italian wedding footage, better known as STEM, the digital test material?”

[Quite a few hands raised, including people in the auditorium like Dave Schnuelle who not only remember it, but helped make it happen.]

Carolyn: For starters, now that we live in the digital world, how has staff and skillsets changed?

Mark Collins (Marcus Theatres): We looked at it [digital cinema] more like an IT function – for the initial time – because all the people were removed from the projection booth. So now we are training our floor staff to do the walk through [of the booth]. It was a money-save, so we then had to have a shift to make it happen. Different staff people who were not responsible now are.

Damian Wardle (Cinemark): I find digital is so reliable and predicatable that the result is repeated over and over more predictably than film ever was. We also have the ability to monitor, for things like light level. The QC on digital cinema is far better.

Rich Philips (Arts Alliance Media): This was a factor even before digital, with staff reductions because of the shift to platters [for film]. Monitoring can help and there is good technology coming out, such as quality control probes that test not just brightness but colour and sound from the speakers.

Jerry Pierce (ISDCF): We now also have captions and multiple audio channels, but with keys it is a more complicated world. Just look at digital naming convention and how you need a secret decoder ring to figure it out. But we have to do everything we did before too.

Carolyn: How has key management changed things?

Mark: Studios are the biggest spammers in the world, they themselves say [sending out KDMs via email]. Downloading and sticking in USB thumbdrive is a stupid way of doing it. I hope key will be delivered in automatic manner,

Rich: It is working, but in the sense of a swam swimming; with furious peddling under surface. It is massively sub-optimal. There is a lot that could be done to improve the delivery. There really should be a complete feedback loop that the key has sucesfully been delivered. All of this is technically possible. I feel passionately about this issue.

Wendy Aylsworth (Warner Bros): By necessity a lot of this was done manually to start, but as we are seeing in all areas of the world as you get more global you can automate more things for things that are related. We are working, studios, theatre owners, distributor houses, so that we are not pushing keys, so that we have system verify and they can be pulled by projectors. Question of time to get those in place.

Jerry: Encrypted movies were an unknown quantity back then. Not a single movie has been stolen that way [copying it from the server] so it has been wildly succesful. It has remained a reliable way of delivery, once you figure out how to do it. Previously people had walked out with film canisters. It can move from screen to screen – subject to contractual obligation.

Rich: Encryption is strong, but the trusted devices list manual update is not ideal and it is question of [inaudible].

Carolyn: Initially we didn’t talk about 3D, now we are talking HDR, laser projector. What techonlogy excites you most?

Damian: Good question. Lots of things coming on. One surprise of digital cinema: we thought it would settle down. I’m excited about all of these. Chicken and egg discussions with studios about any of these techonlogies. We equip auditoriums [with immersive audio capabilities] but if it [DCP] doesn’t come with soundtrack it does not benefit anyone. I dont want to pre-guess which ones will be more adopted. Anything that can make the movie expeience stand out more or be more immmersive – I am all for it. We have been reviewing over past year laser projectors. AuroMax is a step foreard. We are testing Escape in a number of locations.

Mark:┬áThere is so much of it this year. Looks like lasers are more mainstream. My concern is cost and recoupment, if you look at lasers versus Xenon. I’m an old sound guy so I’m always excited about sound format. But worried. There is a lot of testing. We have tested motion seats. We have looked at many diffferent formats. The massive technology we have implemented are Movie Chairs, those loungers seems to make the biggest impression.

Carolyn: Wendy what is exciting film makers?

Wendy: A number of fronts. Immerive audio. Those looking at HDR are excited, but you need bright lasers to get there. Reminds me that when digital cinema came out we were not aware of the confluence of polirization technology would come together to form 3D more than us studios expected. Personally I feel as we change colour is done to more match the human eye were are seeing scene – Warner Bros makes scenes that are dark and scary (like “Dark Knight”) – a scene that would have seemed solid black you can now see a differential in that. You can have audio that’s more positioned. OR a chair that has air brush past your feet. I’m excited!

Jerry: We are in an industry that is moving fast. We are like a motor fair, where we are seeing some great concept cars. The images at Dolby’s [HDR laser screening of] “Inside Out” were fabulous. That was a great concept car. But we have to be carefull, we made a transition from film to digital and we knew that it was better than [35mm film] print and we did not disrupt our industry in the process. We have to do it gently, so as not to disrupt our industry.

Rich: I love all of this suff, because I’m a sucker for new techonlogy. Anything that can help to improve the immersion is good, whether it is audio imersion, or better spatial range. But it is an improvement to [recognise digital cinemas as] something that is already very good. Well mastered 2K is something very good.

Carolyn: [asking the audience] How many exicited about immersive audio? [Ioan Allen from Dolby raises is hand – perhaps not entirely surprisingly – as do many others.] “Immersive screens?” [A few] “HDR?” [Many]

Carolyn: Immersive sound. We have proprietary formats. NATO has asked for one version that can play in all cinemas. How are we doing in that?

Mark: For us it is just the beginning. We invested heavy in Barco Auro 11.1. Dolby Almos: 22 screens by the end of this month. We are putting it into our PLF screens. Should we move on to our next level of auditoriums? We also have system from Harmon that is probably perfect for alternative content.

Wendy: Projections for time table. Pete Ludde is chairing SMPTE committee for standards for object-oriented audio. We have to get the right audio track to the right theatre. We test new innovation on a case by case basis. Once standard is developed we can put one format ino DCP and if theatres does not have immersive it takes 7.1 or 5.1 and those that have immersive it will pull that.

Jerry: I thought I was master at shuffling, but Wendy has taken it to a whole new level. [general laughter]

Pete Ludde: [Standing up from the audience to speak] No, we don’t have a timetable. Recently there has been support from the different audio companies and those things are being carefully looked at. So given all of that I am optimistic of an international standard within 20-12 months.

Wendy: Lets have ambition of published by early 2016 and a standard by 2017.

Jerry: It is like having a SMPTE DCP standard by April but we dont know which year. [Widespread laughs]. Technlogy is not difficult but business is tough, because of the interlock when companies have play in both field. From technical standpoint you can get there. I predict it will be April. [More laughs]

Rich: It is getting ever more complex. Even if you have one object based audio format you will still have DCPS with different brightness gradings. We have to get further in automating that. How do we pull down the right assets?

Mark: That is a problem, in terms of getting it to the right audioriums. In our smaller cinema markets it is pretty standardised, but in the premium markets, there is challenges getting it right.

Carolyn: Any other issues in HDR or lasers?

Jerry: Money.

Mark: It really is money. We are getitng a really big sticker shock with money. As tech guy I would be happy to ignore that, but my boss won’t let me.

Carolyn: Let’s move to the lobby, We are seeing lots of oppportunities.

Wendy: We are excited about the possibilities of having more exciting motion going on in the lobby that draws the consumer in. So the lobby is becoming a more exciting place. Now it is a social gathering space and that is drawing young people in.

Mark: We have done a lot of work on our lobbies in the last few years. Now that we have electronic displays, moving poster cases, next you will see the entire lobby becomes a 30 second event for the movie. We have to see the cost beenfits to make that happen, so that it doesn’t disrupt our traditional business model. I’m sure we will be moving quickly.

Damian: We have done a lot of work in this area too. We also want to extend it to mobile phones to communicate with our customers. All of this is expensive technology. It will have to create cost savings or new revenues that pays for it. What is the business plan behind it? At the end of the day we have to see how it moves the needle, in terms of customers coming back more or buying more concessions.

Carolyn: With digital cinema we have coined the term ‘other digital stiuff’. What is the potential of ODS?

Damian: Very excited. Digital has opened the door to things we could previously not do. The DCDC anouncement means that we can show things in a whole new way. Opportunities are still out there. So with IP streaming we can target it to any auditorium. It looks like it is moving towards a movie workflow, which makes it easier to manage and switch auditorium. We need to build for that scalability for the future.

Mark: Exactly what we are looking at. We want to be able to get content from any place and any where. We try to make it as easy as possible to deliver content to us. All these technology things are coming very quickly, so as content creation people don’t have to go through all the hoops to get content to us. There’s like 600-700 movies that are submitted in some ways, we have to dig through those weeds to find the golden nugget. All venues will run “Avengers”, but a film like “Fort McCoy” about an army base in Winsconsin would only run there. Making 35mm print was tough, but now content creators can get into our cinemas.

Carolyn: What are technical challenges you are seeing in production and post production?

Wendy: Colour grading is a bit backward at the moment. HDR – televisions can do it more easily but for theatres it is difficult. Our directors are never going to do colour correction for television first on monitors. Theatre should come first and TV should be derivative of that. But only way to do it is a high-end monitor. That is likely to switch in a year. We are stil struggling to get all the tools for 48fps and 60fps.

Carolyn: With all the HDR and languages and sound systems, we are potentialy talking about 100s of version of the movie, which we did not anticipate. Can you look into crystal ball – will we contineu to have 100s?

Rich: I don’t see how we can avoid it. It is a question of how can you handle it rationally. CPL metadata is going to help us. Enables pushing DCP to right auditorium. But it will get worse in terms of number of versions. It very quickly gets out of control. It is a distribution nightmare and creative challenge.

Wendy: I think you are right that there are software solutions. I will use international 3D subtitling as an example. Because projectors and servers can’t do automated render so we have had to burn it into image, that’s now been solved and a standard has been created. It can be rendered at the right depth. HDR should be distributed so that you have a P3 layer, if we don’t do that we force ourselves to know which version has to go to which theatre. On the light levels we are sending out different version to different theatres. Television is looking at tone mapping and that may be able to translate for theatres.

Rich: That is going to require a lot of re-engineering of standards and new equipment in the thetares. A lot of first generation of equipment in theatres won’t be able to handle it.

Jerry: It is creating a real adventure out there. It would be good if we can get two immersive audio formats down to one, but it won’t be easy. And people keep bringing out new concept cars. Some concept cars will not continue to work. The movie shakeing seats there is NO standard at all, so a separate track has to be tested. That would also be interesting to do.

Carolyn: In addition to what we have talked about, are there other opportunities that software offers that we have not discussed?

Rich: Absolutely. I think there is also opportunities to find new revenue streams. Whether it is being more dynamic in how advertising is played or niche audiences are targeted. I don’t know how many people saw CineCards. For a small fee you can upload a few images that will play a birthday greeting during the pre-show. That would not have been possible before. We are going to be seeing a lot more of that.

Carolyn: Looking into the crystal ball, what changes do you see on the horizon?

Wendy: I look forward to a day when I can go to theatre in terms of technologies being tools for story tellers. I look forward to a day when I can see storyteller use these tools to tell more exciting stories. I personally like higher frame rates, does not have to be consistently high, but can be used to highten emotions. [Carolyn mentions Ang Lee’s next film being shot 120fps]

Mark: I think in the future there is going to be different cinemas. There is going to be Alamo Drafthouse, mid-range bar and food, high-end bar and food. In the future you will have a cinema with nothing but PLFs showing blockbusters. It is our responsibility to find what people are looking for. Lounger seats are a good example of that. As far as techonlogy is concerned, I think we will have specialty theatres. For us that is UltraScreens. You may see less of the 14-18 screen theatres. The flipside of that is arthouse and I use that generically, where you can see specialty films. So many things could happen in the future and I don’t know what that might be.

Damian: Looking at it from a presentation perspective, further to what Rich said, we have a pretty high standard and cinema is the best place to see movies. Further enhacement will come and the future is to some extent here today with immersive sound. What I’m looking forward to is alternative content. Theatre of the future is going to be entertainment complex. It can be national broadcast of a concert, but the barriers of getting content to theatres is breaking down .

Jerry: Evolutionary not revolutionary proress. It will be more an entertainment destination. I see more variety in the kinds of envoronments where you will have options. Especially for iPad and iPhone generation, how do we incorporate that usage. I see in 5-10 years, what we consider a theatre complex will be quie different. They were showing bed theatres.

Rich: I definitely agree about variety of content, but it will be data driven for better understanding of the audiences. Maximising capacity, what audiences and content fits that and how can we use data to optimize. Operationally more centralized control. There is no reason for programming to be theatre-based. We will see it move to head office.

Carolyn: Time for questions.

Julie: [Doing a dissertation on 20th Century Movie practices.] How do you see busines owners making some of these changes for their communities?

Mark: I know a lot of the small markets in Wisconsin, so a lot of decision have to be made. Crowdfunding. Very small markets have to take a lot of loal decision and initiative. Medium markets, rewards programms and social media. Biggest concern in old days chains book nationally, but now thay habe to know their local markets.

[And that was all there was time for. It is a topic that could have been discussed for many more hours. Moreover, it is a topic that we are likely to keep coming back to. And no Hollywood studio executive expected that s/he would have to sit through all their studio’s movies for QC of all three motion seat versions – twice (2D and 3D). Unintended consequences indeed.]
Patrick von Sychowski
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Patrick von Sychowski

Patrick was a Senior Analyst at Screen Digest, went on to launch the digital cinema operations of Unique and Deluxe Europe, then digitised Bollywood at Adlabs/RMW, and now writes, consults and appears on panels about cinema all over the world.
Patrick von Sychowski
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