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Friday, March 10, 2006

`Other Digital Stuff’: Conference on Alternative Content for Digital Screens

I’m at the Digital Cinema Laboratory on Hollywood Boulevard (aka the Pacific Theater) for a conference called “Other Digital Stuff: Expanding the In-Theater Experience.” The organizer is the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, run by Charles Swartz.

The opening panel is being moderated by Bob Lambert, SVP for New Technology at Disney. His panelists are:

    - Joe Berchtold from Technicolor Digital Cinema
    - John Fithian, president of NATO
    - Chuck Goldwater from Christie/AIX
    - Kurt Hall from National CineMedia
    - Julian Levin of Fox
    - Howard Lukk of Disney, executive director of production technology
    - Steve Perrin from the UK Film Council, deputy head of distribution and exhibition

Lambert opens by noting that as digital cinema has evolved, its proponents have spent very little time talking about ways that digital projectors might be used, aside from showing features: videoconferencing, sporting events, video games. “There was always this `other’ category,” Lambert says. “Serious theater buffs always scoffed at the fact that this other stuff would share the stage with theatrical content.” They termed it ODS, or “other digital stuff.” People who thought that showing anything other than features in a movie theater liked to pronounce ODS as “odious.” (Fithian claims to have coined the phrase at the NAB trade show a few years back.)

Lambert’s first question: how is the roll-out progressing? What’s your assessment of the digital cinema roll-out so far? What’s working and what needs more attention?

Berchtold says, “I don’t think the roll-out has started yet.” He thinks we’re still at least a couple months away from having systems in the field that are near-DCI compliant.

Fithian says, “I believe that 2006 is a fundamental transition year for digital cinema technologies in our space.” As evidence, he points out that there are a number of exhibitors in the audience. “We still don’t have completely DCI-compliant systems in the marketplace – but we’re close.”

He continues, “We were often accused of being the dinosaurs holding back the revolution…[but] exhibition was the part of the industry that just wanted to get it right.” He mentions some of the standards wars of the past and present – Betamax and VHS, Blu-ray and HD-DVD – and says the DCI standard was “a tremendous accomplishment for an industry that can sometimes not work together well.”

“A few years ago,” Fithian says, “digital cinema wasn’t as good as film. We’re now at the juncture where we can give the patrons a better experience.” 2006 will be the year in which digital cinema becomes real, he says.

Goldwater says he has a different perspective than Berchtold. He jokes that Fithian is serving as a buffer between him and Berchtold from Technicolor. “To us at AccessIT, and our partners at Christie, the state of digital cinema is strong, and getting stronger every day. We will have close to 200 digital cinema installations by the end of this month, all of which are JPEG servers from Doremi.” He mentions the three chains they’re working with: UltraStar, Carmike, and Emagine.

Goldwater says that he’s been talking to Sony, WB, and Paramount, all of whom are making plans to do their first JPEG 2000 releases in April.

If Christie/AIX is in a higher gear right now than Technicolor, it struck me that National CineMedia is still in neutral.

Hall says the company today has lots of experience delivering digital content to 11,000 screens. Today it’s mostly pre-show ads, and a bit of ODS, but they send out 1.5 million digital files a day. “I would say if the industry roll-out [of digital cinema] starts by 2008, we would’ve done a very good job,” he says. National CineMedia is hoping to drive the price of equipment down through “redesign and volume purchasing,” he says. NCM is wary of “rushing into something with bad technology or bad design or systems that’re too expensive, or systems that will be obsolete in a year or two...We’re taking a very deliberate approach. [2006] is a proof-of-concept or testing year.”

Levin from Fox points out that there are 140,000 screens outside the U.S. Making sure that they accept the DCI standard, without feeling as though it is an American standard being imposed upon them (which of course it is) is important.

Lukk from Disney spouts some more stats: there were about 100 digital screens in the U.S. before Disney’s release of “Chicken Little.” Today there are 301 screens – about 151 of which rely on JPEG 2000 servers, 150 have MPEG servers. Disney’s “Eight Below” opened on 109 digital screens. “The Incredibles” played on just 40. “The Shaggy Dog,” which opened today, is on 98 digital screens.

“We did have a science experiment,” Lukk says. “Today, we’re in the reality of doing larger-scale operations. [2006 will be] a very ugly year. There are a lot of problems that we have to work through. You need scale to find out these issues. When you release to six or 40 screens, you don’t realize the things you do when you release to 100 screens [operationally and technically.]”

“We can afford to stumble a bit right now,” Lukk says. “We can’t afford to stumble with thousands of screens.” He’s happy that some theaters now have more than one digital auditorium, so that movies from several studios can play alongside one another (rather than this week’s new digital release bumping off last week’s), or so that digital pictures can be shifted from a large auditorium to a small one in the later weeks of their run.

Lukk then tosses out a metaphor that people will come back to again and again throughout the day. “Put on your swimsuits. Come on in. The water’s a little cold – but it’ll warm up.”

Perrin from the UK Film Council says, “We jumped into the water a long time ago, and it was even colder then. We installed our 50th digital cinema system this month. We have 3500 screens in the UK [in total]. That’s about 10 percent of the screens in the U.S. On a pro rata basis, in the UK, it’d be like having 500 screens installed [in the U.S.] He says the UK Film Council is concentrating on getting “non-blockbusters” on its digital screens – ideally produced in Great Britain – films like those that were nominated for Best Picture Oscars this year.

Lambert asks what the panel thinks about ODS. Fithian says he believes that “feature films will continue to drive the box office…everything else is gravy.” But later, Fithian says that one thing that will be powerful is showing movies with niche appeal on Monday or Tuesday nights – movies that might work in four or five cities, or just one metropolitan area, but not the entire country. He says that digital could be “potentially the most exciting thing for independent filmmakers.”

Goldwater says, “Digital technology empowers exhibitors to accomplish more with the underutilized space and time in their theaters. I think there is a lot of exciting potential yet to be realized -- though exhibitors are [also] looking to optimize the performance of feature films.”

Levin says he thinks digital cinema needs to focus on types of entertainment not available at home (IE, not the Super Bowl). Feature films and 3-D content, for instance.

But Perrin thinks that digital cinema will be powerful for events like the Olympics. Hall notes that NBC might not like the idea of sharing its TV rights to the Olympics with movie theaters.

I asked the panel how digital movies are being loaded onto servers today – are the theater personnel actually doing it, or are the distributors sending out people to make sure movies are loaded and good to go? Lukk says it’s a mix today, but that Disney is trying to get theater personnel up-to-speed quickly on the use of the equipment, learning about security keys and the like. (After the session, Goldwater says that Christie/AIX trains theater personnel to handle everything themselves.)

The following session focused on 3-D, with Steve Shklair of Cobalt Entertainment and Joshua Greer of Real D. I was out in the lobby for most of their clips, but I saw an amazing test that Steve shot at a U2 concert. Afterward, he told me that he just got back from shooting several of the band’s shows in South America. So look for the 3-D U2 concert film soon, in IMAX theaters – and potentially also some of the “smaller screen” theaters that Disney used last year for its 3-D release of “Chicken Little.”