Digital Cinema PVRThere has been many hundreds of blog posts about the slow decline of box office cinema over the past seven years or so. The growth of gaming in the home combined with DVD sales and decent quality TV screens in the same room have meant going to the ‘pictures’ for many is a special treat – rather than the ‘best way’ to see a movie. Also in certain territories the cinema experience has become rather sterile and samey – how many of us think of the standard experience now as drifitng along mid-way through a theatrical release, a 100 ish seater mini-cinema, a choice of popcorn and coke, and fifteen minutes of trailers to sit through. Then you may or may not get a quality image and sound. Half way through a movies two to six week run or so the print is dirty, perhaps a few edits have appeared (for whatever reason) and focus, synch and sound may not be setup right. You sit there thinking, perhaps I should have waited for the DVD, or why there are only five other people in the large room with you. OK we all have our own take on the cinema experience. Often a social event more than a regular way to enjoy movies. (Go on flame me). OK so what is the ‘big dark room’ industry going to do.

Well ever since the late nineties when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace the first to be projected digitally the promise has not been fulfilled. The nearest thing we had to a pristine, photorealistic, “am I here” experience has been 70mm IMAX, particularly 3D IMAX. But the story world and narrative quality of these films has been dubious and more in the Discovery camp than Speilberg. Then we had annoying artifacts with vertically orientated projection and for certain motion it was very ‘flickery’ on many shots. I was lucky to see the first digital end-to-end creation when Toy Story II was shown at the IBC conference in Amsterdam in 2000 or so. Stunning. I remember walking right up to the screen and seeing no drop in quality. Then in 2004 I saw another end to end system, panavision’s Genesis. Genesis is the digital equivalent of 35mm and this was an invited audience comparison between 35mm and Genesis. The panavision rep showed a variety of shots back to back (and this was a 4k chip I recall – the standard will be 2k DLP or so) and asked the audience, digital or 35mm. Everyone got it wrong. And in the audience of only 30 or so, many cinematographers including those working with Robert Rodriquez and Bob Zemekis’s were fooled. Anyway so what about the rest of the world. The real point about Digi Cinema is that the potential for immersion is much greater – and scale and fooling the senses is much higher, as I talked about in my Immersion: Ambient TV, addictive MMORPG post.

There have been many ‘digi cinema is about to get going’ report over the past years, this USA today one is typical from 2005 but this BBC Tech report last week called “Cinema meets Digital Technology” is very bullish about the changes ahead and it points out that in the last year digi cinemas have tripled…

Now the industry has reached a watershed, and digital cinema is about to take off in a big way. A couple of years ago there were only 335 digitally-equipped screens worldwide. By the end of last year, in which Hollywood finally published a common technical standard, that number had almost trebled, to 849 screens. Forecasts predict 17,000 screens in just a few years from now, concentrated in the movie world’s spiritual home, the US. The Hollywood studios are driving this transition because they stand to make enormous savings, which they can pass on to the cinemas themselves. The most obvious saving is in distribution costs. An average length feature film print costs around £700 ($1,300). Encoding it and delivering a hard drive to the cinema works out at a fraction of that. In future, the possibility of delivering the movie by satellite or over the net has got the bean counters salivating. One of the other great costs to the movie industry is piracy, which Hollywood claims has cost it $6bn (£3.2bn).

Now I wonder if that cost saving will be passed onto the viewer. Of course not. Just like the telcos who will cap and overcharge its broadband/IPTV customers until it has recouped many times over the ‘broadband pipes’ , you can be sure that cost will stay as they are even though they will save around $1.2 billion over print distribution. There are still issues with cost though as each projector costs around $70k US more than its 35mm equivalent at the moment and does not last as long – but the economics make sense once all cinemas are digital. Now once cinema is globally digital interesting things can take place. Firstly, within months the first satellite distribution channels will be set-up for national and potentially global, footprint simultaneous releases (as the article suggested) but this has been a key business model from day one. We are now in the world of a HUGE PVR (personal video recorder). A digital equipped cinema becomes the same as your VCR/PVR in the home. It can be encrypted to the disk so it cannot be taken off. It can track how many plays. It can transmit ticket sales against those plays. It can be updated at the drop of a hat. So all of a sudden we have dynamic cinema. As audiences drop to less than 10 for a viewing, the next film is put onto the system. Another aspect of this is that rather than the general public waiting for the DVD a few weeks later, they can be sold and made at the cinema from the same digital copy but also for a sky high fee, a rich home theatre owner could potentially buy play rights to the same digital capture and projection from the same download infrastructure. There are many other business models that we could explore and I have heard hundreds at NAB, Digital Hollywood and IBC particularly. What I am more interested in is the potential for more ‘interactive’ experiences once a digital system is in place. Anything can be added into the digital stream that hits the LCD chip in the powerful light stream. So dynamic overlays, sms streams, cameras inside the cinema, multi-screens, live games, full screen virtual worlds with multiple players, live subtitles, etc etc: As well as interactive potential we also have the return of 3D. As the BBC article goes on to say.

The advent of digital also means that some technologies which were a bit suspect in the past can be revived. Brace yourselves for the return of 3D. In truth 3D never really went away – it has been the staple of the big-screen Imax experience for years. Imax uses two film projectors and two reels of film to fool our brains into thinking we are seeing 3D. That process has been too expensive for regular cinemas to contemplate, but digital projectors make it affordable for the first time. “But now a single digital projector can run at a higher frame rate and show both left eye and right eye from a single projector.” There is now a real buzz about 3D; there are seven new 3D movies slated for release in the coming year. With technology available to recreate old classics, as well as show sporting events, in 3D there is a real feeling that 3D is finally coming of age.

So I am getting quite excited by this. Combining startlingly clear digital 3D on a 200ft screen, with a live social network (all those crowds of people around you), combined with a programme that may include some passive stories, that will include some collaborative quest/gameplay and perhaps a mix of the two – now theres a reason why I would leave the computer screen or DVD movie and get down the local ‘big dark room’. The question remains though will digital cinema just continue to be a more efficient way to play those two hour films, or cleverly insert topical and local, targeted ads digitally – perhaps we will see some more personalized applications and allow rich clientele to insert their video proposal to girlfriend, snippets of family movies for the party crowd during the trailers, or how about a vote for a few YouTube films at the start from all those seated. How about cinemas becoming the place you watch the big match – why not, even the pre-TV release of Desperate Housewives and so on. Stick a set-top box next to the projector and voila – the list is endless. Digital opens doors, which cinemas will take the risk and do more than movies?

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006