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A GLOBAL VIEW OF D-CINEMA

November 5, 2003
A GLOBAL VIEW OF D-CINEMA With only 159 screens worldwide, and prospective buyers in wait-and-see mode, it appears that the digital cinema "revolution" has hit a lull. According to a June 2003 report published by the Digital Cinema Providers Group (DCPG), which listed all commercial digital cinemas worldwide, there are only 89 screens in America, 16 screens in Europe, and 54 screens in Asia. The DCPG (www.dcpg.com) is an independent organization that seeks to educate and influence the industry and consumers to promote the commercialization of digital cinema.

Vendors of digital cinema equipment say that among the reasons holding back a successful commercial roll-out are the cost of DLP Cinema-grade equipment (which can range from $125,000 to $250,000 per screen compared to just $25,000 for a 35mm film projector); the lack of a viable business plan that benefits both studios and exhibitors; and the lack of an industry standard specifying minimum capabilities for all of the technology in the digital cinema chain.

Many vendors hope that sales might pick up after the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative), which represents all seven major motion picture studios, releases its long-awaited report in March of 2004. However, while many believe that DCI's report will define the much-needed industry standard, the reality is that the report will only contain the studios' recommended specifications for digital cinema, which are strictly voluntary guidelines, and in no way constitute an industry-standard.

In any event, since all of the vendors have been working closely with the DCI to provide product information and demos for the research for the report, they are confident that their top-of-the-line systems - such as projectors based upon Texas Instruments' (TI) next-generation 2K DLP Cinema chipset - will be found suitable for even the most demanding digital cinema mastering and presentation applications. But again, until issues of cost and standardization are resolved, sales will likely remain slow.

However, there is an interesting sales trend forming in Europe and Asia. Vendors tell us that their current sales and leads are coming primarily from countries like China, France and the UK. The governments of these countries have launched initiatives and are providing funding to promote the construction of digital cinemas. While these countries only have a handful of digital cinemas in operation, they are interested in capitalizing on the cost efficiency of digital cinema mastering and distribution to expand their own filmmaking industries. As a result, they are hoping to significantly increase the number of movies produced by their own talented, local filmmakers, and reflecting their own values, cultures and customs.

FOCUS ON FOREIGN MARKETS

"France, China and the UK are among the nations looking at digital cinema as a means of preserving their own cultural identities," says Fairfield, NJ-based Fred Garroy, GM/Americas for Belgium's EVS (www.evs-cinema.tv). "Digital cinema presents an opportunity for them to encourage artistic expression and independent movie production in their countries. Digital cinema enables independent producers to evaluate and distribute their movies, at very high-resolution levels, very cost effectively, as compared to working with film prints."

The EVS Digital Cinema division offers the CineStore family of servers, including Alfa, for post production mastering of the (MPEG-2 MP@ML) digital cinema distribution copy; Delta, a digital cinema dispatching server; Solo, a playback server for single screen digital cinemas; and Plaza, a central server for multiplexes.

Not all foreign installations are government-sponsored. For example, in Japan, which has 18 digital theaters in operation, digital cinemas are privately funded and owned by exhibitors. And, one digital cinema in Brazil (equipped with an EVS CineStore server and Christie DLP Cinema projector), "is fully advertiser-supported by companies such as Intel," says EVS's Garroy. "Actually, Intel was one of the first sponsors of the theaters but they change sponsors every once in awhile. Intel had a flying logo on the screen, but there were also other ads shown prior to the movies." He adds that "it's possible that if digital cinema works in Europe and Asia, exhibitors in the United States might be motivated to follow, and they will benefit from whatever lessons have been learned abroad."

CHINESE MARKET HEATS UP

Outside of the United States, the next biggest concentration of digital cinemas is The People's Republic of China. Vendors of digital cinema equipment say that the Chinese government has committed millions of dollars to realize a four-phase plan to establish 100 digital cinemas, networked for easier electronic distribution throughout China, by the end of 2004.

While some doubt that the Chinese will meet their aggressive deadline, the China Film Group, the government-sanctioned entity overseeing the initiative, already has 34 digital cinemas up and running, with dozens more under construction. As part of the China Film Bureau, the China Film Group has been evaluating the newest equipment and buying the best of everything, even mixing and matching equipment from competing vendors. Among the systems they've already installed in their theaters are DLP Cinema projectors from either Barco or Christie and playout servers from EVS, QuVis, DGC or Avica.

"The Chinese want to be seen as progressive and leaders in this area of technology," says Jim Graham, VP of sales and marketing for QuVis (www.quvis.com) in Topeka, KS. "And certainly throughout China, as well as in Japan and Korea, there's a strong desire to make it easier to export their own film and theatrical productions. Digital cinema enables digital content creators to make and distribute movies by lowering production costs and barriers to entry."

Adds Graham, "By eliminating the need for generating film prints, which can run between $500 and $2,000 each, the economics of the business change such that you have a much lower cost to re-coup to get to a break-even point. Lower up-front costs means you don't need to pre-sell the movie for a broader release. With storage on digital servers and electronic distribution, even a smaller-scale movie can be viable and find its audience."

For those digitally mastering motion pictures, QuVis's QuBit ST server offers an upgrade path to 4K resolution and a shared storage environment. QuVis will be doing demos of its 4K resolution system beginning late October through the end of the year. It plans on shipping the product in the first quarter of 2004.

Because of the system's VTR emulation, it can replace a Panasonic HD D-5 machine downstream from the telecine. And then, acting as a virtual tape deck, the QuBit ST streamlines the editing, color correction and mastering process by enabling realtime access to terabytes of high-resolution content. While it can be used for digital cinema screening, this server has many mastering features that make it ideal for digital intermediate post work.

"Among the blockbuster movies digitally mastered for the Chinese digital cinema market was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, from Warner Bros. QuVis servers are also in use at The Beijing Film Academy, one of the largest institutions in China for training film and television producers, directors and cinematographers.

"The Chinese market has a very large collection of existing titles on film, 3,000 [film-based] cinema screens, 30,000 multi-purpose screens, and a willingness to pioneer new approaches," says Kenbe Goertzen, president/CEO of QuVis. "This provides an excellent opportunity for conversion from film libraries and film-based distribution to a state-of-the-art electronic content production, archive and theatrical distribution system."

CHINA'S DIGITAL CINEMA LANDSCAPE

"The Chinese government has decreed that digital cinema is there to stay, and they are laying the groundwork for digital cinema installations and transmission of content throughout China," says Joe DeMeo, strategic accounts manager for Barco (www. barco.com) in Los Angeles.

For the last two years, Barco's DLP D-Cine Premiere DLP Cinema projectors have been chosen by the China Film Group for several digital theater installations throughout China. So far, Barco D-Cine Premiere projectors have been installed in four theaters in Beijing, two in Shanghai, two in Hangzhou, and one in Shenzen - these will help form a digital cinema network across the country.

"We have been very satisfied with the first D-Cine Premiere projector installations, and very pleased with Barco's support. We look forward to working with them on the remaining phases of this important project," says Huang Yaozu, chief engineer/technology consultant for the China Film Group and CEO of Hualong Film Digital Projection, Ltd. in Beijing.

Hualong, China's leading HD mastering, restoration and conversion facility, also purchased a Barco D-Cine Premiere DLP Cinema projector for its digital cinema mastering suite. "At Hualong, we have always been early adopters and advocates of new and better mastering technology," adds Yaozu. "We learned that early adopters must choose the equipment they invest in wisely. If you test and select it carefully, then you will acquire equipment with the engineering quality and advanced technology to give that equipment longevity. This is what a technology pioneer requires to maximize their early investment. You can't just consider price."

With its latest offering, the D-Cine Premiere DP-100, DeMeo says, "Our [newest projector] was built from the ground up to meet the highest standard in digital cinema - with 2K (2048 x 1080) resolution and a 1700:1 contrast ratio that holds up on a screen display 80-foot wide. This is double the resolution of our DP-50 model, which is essentially 1.2K, with a display for a 55-foot-wide screen," says DeMeo. "Since the average cinema screen is 40-foot wide, either of these projectors would be suitable. Both are DLP Cinema-grade, ISO-9001-compliant and unique in their THX certification." While Barco is already taking orders for its new DP-100 projector, it plans to ship the product in the fourth quarter 2003. For post production mastering, DeMeo recommends Barco's DP-30, a smaller D-Cine Premiere DLP Cinema projector, especially since it offers integrated Communicator software, which gives colorists latitude in manipulating and matching colors, adjusting gamma, contrast, temperature and other image attributes.

"We have been successful in capturing the post production market worldwide, including facilities in Australia, France, Italy and Spain," says DeMeo. "With the market expanding for high-resolution mastering, many of our customers, including EFilm, IVC and Technique, have been running their projectors virtually 24/7, with jobs booked far in advance."

ASIAN SALES ARE STRONG

"Outside of the United States, the next leader in digital cinema is China," says Jack Kline, president/COO for Christie Digital Systems USA (www.christiedigital.com) in Cypress, CA. "Besides the 34 digital cinemas they currently have, they are planning to install another 30 by the end of the year. And we also have orders from Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. So, Asia's been surprisingly aggressive in its pursuit of digital cinema.

"There's a real desire in these Asian countries to promote their own film and culture, and digital cinema provides the opportunity for independent producers to get their own original movies to theaters cost effectively. Their governments are quite anxious to see that happen," adds Kline.

The China Film Group launched their state-of-the-art digital cinemas with special showings of a local movie production called Heaven Grassland, using Christie DCP-H digital cinema projectors. And China's first true digital movie, Polar Region Rescue, was posted at DigiMedia Post Production using a Christie projector.

DLP has a number of installations in the US, including at Pixar, ILM, Laser Pacific, HDVision, Deluxe, Panavision, Technique, EFilm and DVCC (Universal Lot). Christie also provides digital projectors to Regal Cinemedia and to NCN, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AMC, which owns AMC theaters.

With its new CP2000 Series DLP Cinema projectors, based upon TI's 2K chipset, Christie has attained new benchmarks of performance by using high efficiency compound glass reflectors with improved focal point, reduced thermal signature and higher light output projecting images up to HD resolution.

The CP2000 H, for example, offers 2048 x 1080p resolution, a greater than 1700:1 contrast ratio and 15-bit RGB color resolution. ChristieNet networking solutions enable control and monitoring of projectors anywhere around the world, and Christie CP Series Librarian communication software allows for easy set-up calibration, masking, cropping and image resizing.

INDIA SHOOTS FOR 1,500 E-CINEMAS BY 2007

Singapore's GDC Technology (www.gdc-tech.com) recently announced that it won a multimillion-dollar contract to retrofit 400 movie theaters for e-cinema across India by April 2004. To do this, GDC has set up a joint venture with Adlabs Films, India's largest motion picture processing lab, in Bombay.

However, the goal is to retrofit 1,500 theaters for e-cinema by 2007. (E-cinema, or Electronic Cinema, uses DLP projectors while digital cinema requires the higher level DLP Cinema projector.) Estimating the average cost to retrofit one e-cinema at $100,000 (US), GDC's CEO Man-Nang Chong says, "The digital release or print, which can be produced at about $10 (US) per print with almost no human intervention, within 24 hours, is very cost-efficient way to solve India's piracy and distribution problems." At the rate of 1,000 movies per year, India is the most prolific producer of feature films in the world.

GDC offers the DSR digital film server, an MPEG-2 digital film server capable of delivering 4:2:2 color space and rich color processing to the audience. Along with its DSR digital film Agile encoder, the DSR digital film server was demonstrated at the BIRTV'2003 Digital Film Forum delivering 2K resolution.

Besides announcing that its DSR servers have been chosen by the China Film Group for digital cinemas in China, GDC also reports that its DSR digital film Agile encoder was used to encode the French movie Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre for its digital delivery and screenings in digital cinemas in Shanghai, using GDC's DSR digital film server.

"China and India are very committed to d-cinema and e-cinema, respectively, due to the high cost of film prints," continues Chong. "Because of the sheer size of the population and the unavailability [the cost factor] of film prints, the cinemas at the outskirts of the main cities do not have access to first-run film prints. As such, these second-run and third-run cinema operators have lost to the pirated video parlors that show DVD video in a smaller video hall. Digital prints can help theater operators and movie producers to fight the piracy war."

EXPANDING ASIAN MARKETS

Avica Technology (www.avicatech.com) provided its digital cinema mastering system and FilmStore theater players exclusively for China Film Group's initial deployment. And in January 2003 they were again selected as part of the second phase deployment of what will ultimately be 100 digital cinema screens in China.

"Avica's ability to assist in the integration of our distribution and conditional access system, as well as the overall reliability and ease of use of their products and software, was a key consideration in our selection process," says Yaozu of the China Film Group and Hualong Film Digital Projection.

Avica also placed systems in the International Theater in Hong Kong, and the Greater Union George Street Theater in Sydney, Australia. According to Don Bird, VP of sales and marketing for Avica in Santa Monica, "The system in Australia was provided for the premiere and subsequent theatrical release of Finding Nemo.

And in the case of Hong Kong, and another placed at Cinemex, in Mexico City, Avica FilmStores were deployed to support screenings of content utilizing TI's newly released CineCanvas subtitling capability. The digital subtitles represent a big step toward reducing the cost of digital cinema mastering, since they can be added to the original Digital Cinema Distribution Master [DCDM] without re-encoding."

"Avica's FilmStore theater players and our mastering system fully support TI's CineCanvas technology," he adds. "We've demonstrated watermarking in conjunction with TI and are currently screening several releases internationally that utilize CineCanvas subtitles. This technology greatly reduces the cost for international markets and makes it much easier to do day/date releases.

Subtitles are generated as they would be for film, but the final output is converted into a data file that is easily added to the distribution ‘package' containing the OV [original version] encode." In the fourth quarter of 2003, Avica plans to introduce a new line-up of products and technologies designed to fully support management of secure digital distribution networks delivering a full range of content to multiplex cinemas.

MASTERING FOR DIGITAL CINEMA

At da Vinci Systems (www.davsys.com) in Coral Springs, FL, the focus is on enabling post professionals to master content at the resolution levels required to support digital cinema, between 3K- and 4K-resolution. "Our new product line, called Resolve, will be able to provide color grading in context, with conform tools, to satisfy this market requirement," says Matthew Straeb, VP of marketing and product management for da Vinci. Focused on the growing digital intermediate space, Resolve runs on an Intel workstation with a single monitor, signal and picture monitoring and includes da Vinci's joyball panel.

Introduced at IBC 2003, the Resolve software-based color enhancement system offers configurations optimized for varied performance challenges, such as Resolve FX for visual effects work, Resolve DI for digital intermediate work (which uses the da Vinci Powerhouse renderfarm) and Resolve RT for realtime processing of up to 2K-resolution and higher (which uses three monitors for picture and signal monitoring, plus the GUI).

"Realtime processing will enable colorists to view full-resolution images while performing color enhancements instead of relying on low-resolution proxies - all with a more dynamic color range for making complex color changes in a nonlinear environment," says Straeb. It uses da Vinci's wide-bandwidth fabric to achieve realtime 2K processing, as well as 3K processing at 12 frames per second; and 4K processing at six frames per second. And, it includes support for customizable Power Windows, along with conforming tools with timeline display and drag and drop functionality, clip-based color decision lists and end-to-end calibration.

About the future of digital cinema, Straeb comments, "It's likely that digital cinema will become more prominent in the film production industry once a common standard for distribution and viewing is solidified. It's also important that manufacturers price their components at levels that allow facilities to obtain a return on investment before the current technology is eclipsed by newer technologies hitting the market."

With the ability to integrate efficiently into the digital intermediate and digital film mastering workflow, Discreet's (www.discreet.com) Lustre is a turnkey system for primary and secondary color correction, as well as tracking, keying, rotoscoping, pan and scan and accurate monitor/DLP projector calibration. Lustre can handle 2K 10-bit RGB resolution images in realtime and is resolution independent beyond 4K.

"Lustre will help us deliver the best possible digital intermediate service to motion picture clients," says Jan Mikulas, partner/technical director at Studio Mirage, in Prague, Czech Republic. "It is also the perfect technology for us to attract business from bigger, more prestigious productions shooting in Prague." At Pixar, Lustre has been integrated into the digital CG workflow where it is being used as the principal color grading system on several movies slated for release between ‘03 and ‘05. And, at Éclair, multiple Lustre systems are being used extensively on the grading and mastering of nine feature films due to be released by the end of 2004.

2K AND BEYOND

Digital Projection International (DPI) announced in August 2003 that it had demonstrated its new cS25 digital cinema projector using TI's 2K-resolution DLP Cinema technology. The demonstration was presented at the Togeki Theater in Tokyo.

"We are very pleased to be working with our joint-venture partners NEC Viewtechnology Ltd. [based in Japan] and our Japanese distributor Toshiba Denko," says Brian Critchley, CEO of DPI (www.digitalprojection.com) in Kennesaw, GA.

DPI (which partnered with NEC in 2002), Barco and Christie are the only three manufacturers that license DLP Cinema technology from TI and manufacture and market these projectors. DLP (Digital Light Processing) Cinema technology, which is based on DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) technology, has been the only technology that the industry has considered adequate to meet the demands of commercial digital cinema.

According to Doug Darrow, business manager for DLP Cinema (www.dlpcinema.com) for TI in Dallas, "Both the DCI and the exhibitor community have requested a 2K resolution standard, since their goal is not to have an image equal to film, but better. We believe the image quality is there, and if you talk to most players in the industry, the feedback is that we have arrived."

Now many in the industry are asking for a 4K resolution solution, which Darrow says is not a near-future goal. But, he adds, TI and its manufacturer partners Barco, Christie and DPI are making sure that the industry is prepared for the future by focusing on upgradeable projectors, so technology enhancements can be integrated without having to purchase a new projector. "The progress now being made with digital cinema is mostly behind the scenes. This is a monumental change for the movie industry and a lot of pieces to the puzzle have to be in place to ensure a successful transition," Darrow says. "The business models, financial plans, and standards are being worked out, and there are a lot of stakeholders involved working to make a mass digital cinema rollout happen."

JVC REDEFINES DIGITAL CINEMA WAYNE, NJ - Until now, any discussion of digital cinema was confined to projectors using Texas Instruments' DLP Cinema technology. This is because, until now, DLP Cinema was the only technology on the market that the industry regarded as suitable for a commercial digital cinema display. However, with its D-ILA (Direct-Drive Image Light Amplifier) technology, JVC intends to compete for a share of the digital cinema market by offering exhibitors a compelling choice. D-ILA is already incorporated into JVC's QX1 (QXGA resolution) projector. Earlier this year, Kodak demonstrated a high brightness digital cinema projector that uses the same QXGA chips. And, because of its highly reflective liquid crystal device technology, high device contrast of 5000:1 and faithful reproduction of black gradation, D-ILA will make digital cinema presentations look more like film.

"With only 89 screens in America, this is a very fledgling industry. Less than one percent of theaters have transitioned from film to digital projector-based presentations," says Jack Faiman, VP of the Digital Systems Division of JVC Professional (www.pro.jvc.com) and head of JVC's Digital Cinema Initiative based in Cypress, CA. "That means it's too early in the game to rule any projector technology in or out. It's still a wide open field for any projector that can produce the necessary picture quality."

While there are no D-ILA projectors in theaters yet, the high-end, 1.3-inch D-ILA device is in JVC's QX1 projector, which produces 2048 x 1536 QXGA resolution, with 3.15-million pixels and up to a 35-foot wide screen display. The QX1 is already in use at Cinesite as part of the DI process. And at ESC Entertainment it is has been used in much of the digital mastering of the first two Matrix movies.

A new 1.7-inch D-ILA device, announced in August, holds great promise for the future needs of digital cinema. It can produce 3840 x 2048, or 7.9-million pixels. "This D-ILA device produces four times the resolution of HD video," says Dave Walton, marketing manager for JVC. "Recently, we've made great progress with the help of ISCO, which produced an anamorphic lens for our QX1 projector that enables the 35-foot wide display and film-like viewing experience."

By Claudia Kienzle


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