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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Open house at Technicolor's Digital Cinema Test Center

Technicolor invited a few journos to its new Digital Cinema Test Center yesterday morning. For me, it was a good chance to get up to speed on Technicolor’s ambitious plans for digital cinema: the company plans to digitize 15,000 screens over the next ten years, starting this May with a beta test in 200 to 250 theaters. I got invited to attend courtesy of Curt Behlmer, who joined Technicolor recently as its senior vice president of digital cinema operations, and whom I first interviewed in 2005, when he was cooking up an independent financing plan (Digital Cinema Ventures) to install digital cinema equipment.


At a high level, Technicolor was sending three messages:


- Their aim is to be the dominant player in converting U.S. theaters to digital projection, surpassing Christie/AIX, which currently has the lead.


- They’re going to be rigorous about identifying the best possible servers and projectors on the market (2K and 4K) before they get to the meat of their roll-out


- They don’t want to make any sudden moves that might rattle studios or exhibitors. “We’re not here to do it fast – we’re here to do it right,” Joe Berchtold said yesterday. He’s president of Technicolor Electronic Distribution Services. Technicolor CEO Lanny Raimondo underscored that, saying that the company was taking “a prudent and measured approach to the roll-out.”


So they’re not exactly moving like greyhounds chasing a rabbit. Technicolor, you may recall, installed about 60 digital cinema systems back in 2002 and 200, in partnership with Qualcomm – and then hit a kind of air pocket once the Digital Cinema Initiatives standards-setting process began. Berchtold said that the company learned, from that earlier experience, about “a lot of things that broke.” This time, they seem to be trying to make sure they’re the d cinema provider with the most reliable, industrial-strength gear.


At the Test Center (really two screening rooms, one large and one small, with a single large projection booth serving both), they’ve got an impressive array of hardware: projectors from Sony, Christie, NEC, Sanyo, and Barco, and servers from Quvis, Kodak, Doremi, Dolby, and Sony. They’ve developed scorecards for things like performance, feature sets, and DCI compliance, and a battery of 144 tests that they plan to run the equipment through.


If they could’ve hired the Samsonite gorilla to throw this stuff down the stairs, they probably would’ve. They’re shipping hard drives around the country, and observing how much damage they sustain. They’re cutting the power to projectors and servers, and seeing how difficult it is to get them back online. They’re evaluating how easy it is to shift a movie from one server to another, in case an exhibitor decides to play a picture in a bigger auditorium at the last minute.


The first chain to participate in Technicolor's beta test is Century Theatres. Behlmer told me that he didn’t think the early part of the beta test would include Sony 4K projectors – simply because production models are in such short supply, and they’re not bright enough (yet) to be used with larger screens.


Technicolor showed us some 2K clips from “Superman Returns” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and a 4K clip from “iRobot.” (I couldn’t discern the difference. There was also a 4K clip from “Spider-Man 2” that was "down-converted" and shown on a 2K projector.) There were two studio distribution execs present: Dan Fellman from Warner Bros. and Julian Levin from Fox. Levin made an interesting point: the DCI spec doesn’t mandate a particular kind of delivery vehicle for digital movies. You can get them to a projection booth by satellite, hard drive, DVD-ROM, land line, or hot-air balloon. Levin said he worried that that could result in lots of different equipment being required to “ingest” the files. Levin said he is “hoping the industry will converge on one or two delivery formats. [More than that is] inefficient and not cost effective for exhibition.”


So now we’ve got Christie/AIX out converting theaters, and Technicolor ready to get rolling in a limited way in May. We’ll really have some momentum once National CineMedia announces what their timetable is. (They’re going to manage the conversion for Regal Cinemas, AMC, and Cinemark, the three biggest chains.) Perhaps next week at ShoWest?