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HD and UHD ( 2K+ ) Digital Cinema
Various topics: HD, UHD (2K / 4K) Digital Cinema acquisition to distribution.

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Old May 21st, 2009, 06:48 PM   #1
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A longer-term look at independent digital cinema distribution

For quite a while now, I've been basing my distribution planning on using cinemas with existing digital projectors (non-DCI-spec) with the possibility of getting onto screens with DCI-spec projectors during any lull in Hollywood 3-D releases.

I've also had the idea that digital cinema distribution will get easier and easier (for future independent releases) as more cinemas adopt the DCI-spec servers and projectors.

Not any more.

A recent meeting with a high-level executive of a national cinema chain has caused me to do an abrupt U-turn in my future planning concerning DCI-spec server/projectors.

I've long known that Hollywood 3-D movies are the single thing driving the adoption of DCI-spec projection in Aussie cinemas (and around the world).

What I didn't know was that the local cinemas (who are currently adopting DCI-spec) are so wary of offending the Hollywood studios, who are subsidizing these systems for the cinemas, that they will NOT exhibit any movies that are not 3-D by Hollywood studios.

This is not hard to understand.

1/ Aussie cinema chains rely 100% on the Hollywood product to make their living. They cannot afford to get the Hollywood studios off-side in any way.

2/ I was told that the Hollywood studios are actually fully subsidizing each cinema which adopts DCI-spec projection by means of a "virtual print fee". I was once told that it costs A$2,000 to make a single film copy to send to a cinema. So I assume that the studio pays the cinema $2,000 for every 3-D movie they release until the cinema has paid off the projector and server. The cinema exec told me that it costs them $100,000 for each 2K projector (!!!!) and I already know that it costs over A$20,000 for a DCI-spec server. So I guess that they would have to show about 60 Hollywood 3D movies before each system is "paid off".

3/ I was told that there is a contract being negotiated between the studios and cinema chains (concerning the "rules" of these subsidies), but it probably won't be done for at least 6 months. Or even longer. There's no way of knowing if this contract will be good news or bad news for Aussie indies wanting to exhibit on DCI-spec systems. But, in the meantime, it's a closed door and the small players have to work out their own solutions.


Now, the cinemas with existing digital projectors (non-DCI-spec) have zero anti-piracy measures, (unlike DCI-spec, which has wonderful anti-piracy measures) but it's possible to concoct a specialized server for these existing projectors which can offer a degree of anti-piracy measures.

I've found that bringing up the subject of "anti-piracy" can be very touchy. But, if you want your movie to be viable and therefore become popular (heaven forbid!) your movie will then become at risk of piracy, which can scuttle the viability of the movie. And the most vulnerable point is the projection room. (And that's why the DCI-spec measures are so good!)

Now, it seems that some indies aren't too concerned about piracy:

Aussies producing flicks 'no-one wants' - home - LIVENEWS.com.au

Fair enough.

However, the use of existing projectors and a concocted server is a short-term solution I'll be following.

But I'm also forming a longer term view to move towards. It's a strategic view. And it means that a new product will have to be developed. And I'm going to "float" this idea on this board. After all, wasn't a thread once floated on imaging sensors which got developers listening and the SI-2K was eventually developed?

Here's the playing field:

a) Super-expensive 2K projectors which lock the cinemas into a "subsidized" relationship which is currently bad news for local indies.

b) There's an upcoming release in the second half of this year of the Scarlet S35 DSMC Brain for US$7,000. This has a 5K Bayer sensor which should, with Graeme Nattress's clever de-bayering, yield a genuine 4K image. With this single model, I predict a flood of genuine 4K indie product. This could trigger off another touchy subject, which is whether these 4K indie movies will be good or bad (depends on the artistry of the individual filmmakers). But that's not the point. The point is that the trend towards 4K movies will produce a genuine demand for 4K projection.

c) There was a recent demonstration of a 4K server called REDRAY which, per reports, played an outstanding 4K image at something like 10 megabits per second. Incredible! I think it's supposed to retail for something like $2,000 (although I might be wrong about this).

So I'm postulating (a definition of postulate is "to suggest or assume the existence of something as a basis for reasoning or discussion") the following:

A single unit 4K projector/server (combined projector and server), capable of playing 2K DCI-spec plus secure playing of 4K movies - retailing for about $10,000. I think any cinema could buy that without needing studio subsidy.

If an F23 or F35 can cost $250,000-$350,000, yet a 5K camera brain can cost only $7,000, then I'm suggesting that $100,000 for a 2K projector is not necessarily the way it always has to be.

There's lots of things that I "don't know". Such as:

- is there some kind of a chip made by Texas Instruments which has to be used inside each projector? (Or did I receive wrong info?)
- I'm not sure exactly how 3D works with DCI-spec projectors. I read somewhere (can't find the link at the moment) that Sony was developing some sort of screen to be placed in front of the projector which enables 3D. Or does the projector have to have 2 separate lenses?

My thinking is that a cinema will buy a $10,000 projector/server only if they can play the Hollywood product. And the only Hollywood product being released digitally is 3D. So it must somehow be 3D compatible.

There are many thousands of cinemas around the world yet to convert to digital, so a low unit cost could be viable given widespread sales. And quite a few indie filmmakers would spring $10,000 for a 4K projector/server. Both for grading and checking the quality of your final encoding.

I know some DV Info members feel that 2K is all you'd ever need for the cinema, and that the further you sit back from the cinema screen, the less you can perceive the extra resolution.

But I personally enjoy 4K projection and, if 4K projects are going to be shot on cameras like the S35 Scarlet in the future, then why not have an inexpensive 4K projector/server?

Finally, I'd like to avoid speculation such as, "I wonder if RED are going to build something like this?" Otherwise this thread will be yanked into Area 51 with the "I heard Apple are going to release ..." and "Will Canon ... " type of threads.

I see a long-term need for this type of product and would appreciate some discussion by interested people as to the details of what might be really needed to pull something like this off. But the stress is on how it CAN be done rather than how it can't be done.

Of course, it might turn out that I'm the only person interested in this.
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Old May 24th, 2009, 05:17 AM   #2
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I am torn with the idea of digital projection VS. film. There are good and bad things about both...

I have yet to go into a digital theater in new york and be shocked by its resolution... they still don't come near to film. They all seem to have the "screen door effect". Even sitting all the way back I can see the pixels. Now I have yet to see what 4k looks like on screen, I hear people say its amazing... I really want to see what the hype is about, I've seen 4k monitors but never 4k projection.

I think what you are talking about is a hard thing for theaters to do in the USA, but over seas it might be easier... We are so strongly driven by the Hollywood market, that theaters could care less about allowing indi films in the door.

I like the idea of having access to theaters digitally from an independent stand point, but it makes all new problems, I keep writing about keeping standards, and quite frankly, I am worried that this could lower the standards that some viewers have towards films. This could greatly upset the Hollywood market, and way down the line possibly cause a collapse in the structure that holds the Hollywood movie business together. Some indi guys might love the thought of that, but think, if the standards are lowered, then "anyone" could have access, so then something special is now turned into the norm. That can hurt movie goers experience with viewing films. Subjecting them to more independent films could in fact "dumb" down the view of what a good film is.

I get A LOT of dvds sent to me every year from people who have gotten distribution from a smaller company and has their dvd in best buy, block buster, or any of the online dvd rental companies... MOST of them, for lack of a better term, SUCK. I would really hate to see these films have any kind of chance at being showing in a cinema. But the thought of a cheap 4k with DCI ability for inde guys kinda scares me. As for 3-D goes, I think we are finally starting to touch on 3-D in a whole new way again, I REALLY hope this is the way films start to go. Films needed something new, and although 3D really isnt new by any means, the way we are doing it now feels like it is. IMAX 3D is amazing to me, I saw "Polar Express" and as a Cinematographer, I was blown away. I never saw something like this in my life,It was simply beautiful and more 3D than I have ever seen .I wanted to see "My Bloody Valentine 3D" but its out of theaters now so I will never get that big 3D feel ever again . I used to watch 3D IMAX movies when they first started putting out their shorts and they were great then it faded away for some unknown reason. I think independent 3D films I would support much more than non 3D indes.

As for the projectors, they are already on their way out... 4k projectors for way under 20k is going to be quite soon. I think filmmakers would love being able to see their RED footage actually in its native res on a huge scale. They could then experiment with different color choices and grading in-house instead of at a post facility. Then post houses get mad... its all a chain, someone always gets hurt when quality goes up and prices go down.
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Old May 24th, 2009, 11:25 AM   #3
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Hi David,

The picture you paint of the problem is a familiar business model -- and by-and-large a successful one for a period of time. Examples include grocery stores (where local produce is mostly excluded in favour of major suppliers who demand a degree of exclusivity if they are to supply through the year), pharmacies (where a limited range of major suppliers is present for a given store chain), big box stores (where favoured suppliers are given exclusivity as long as they conform to the price and other standards), and I am sure there are more.

I guess a similar but slightly different model is the one portrayed in the movie "You've got mail" with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks where a large bookseller chain outcompetes the little local bookstore. The outcome of that movie doesn't bode well for the indie filmmaker.

Over time both models break down somewhat as consumers tire of the lmited range and request a greater diversity. In general though the main way these models lose (if they ever do) is because someone comes up with a better model that competes in a different way, or that continues to offer diversity often in vast malls, or that supplies a high quality niche market. I can't think of models where the supplier was able to break into the chains in any significant way, but that could simply be my relatively limited horizons in the business world.

If we extend your thinking a little, it suggests that an upstart Indie-based movie theater chain or franchise with a biggish screen featuring 2K and possibly 4K inexpensive projectors able to present independent films in a wide range of formats (including 3D) might just grab a place in the hearts of movie-goers. There are certainly examples of such ideas growing into major franchises (Starbucks). So your idea might really take off if the boutique theaters chose their products carefully.

And, of course, there are also lots of small businesses that didn't make it -- perhaps because their product "sucked".

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Old May 24th, 2009, 12:27 PM   #4
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Right - the business model that MIGHT buck the 'studio system' would require more than nifty inexpensive high resolution projection equipment.

It would require a theatre.

Doors, seats, concession stands, employees and insurance. AND they are going to want an even bigger nut than the studios, because their overhead is going to be similar, but their product is going to be a 'higher risk' (Harder sell)

Not saying it won't/can't happen. On a small scale, you see this now - lots of 'art houses' abound. So you'd probably start there, they already have the bricks and mortar, you're just asking them to take on the added expense of the upgrade to projection equipment.

But which is the chicken, which the egg? Where's the content?

"If you shoot it, they will come..."


"If you screen it, I will shoot it..."
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Old May 24th, 2009, 12:37 PM   #5
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What goes around comes around:

J. Arthur Rank, 1st Baron Rank - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"The problems encountered in the distribution of Turn of the Tide were addressed when J. Arthur Rank discovered that the people who controlled the British film industry had ties to the American movie industry and that for all practical purposes he was shut out of his own domestic market. American films occupied 80% of British screen time during the era before World War II.
In 1936 Rank arrived at a solution to his distribution problems. Because the middlemen controlled the distribution pipeline from production to exhibition, he decided to buy a large part of both the distribution and exhibition systems."
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Old May 25th, 2009, 10:16 AM   #6
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It seems to me there are a host of questions about how to get your work seen if you are an independent. The festival route is more open than it was, but still a very long-shot approach for theaters or any major public distribution. The idea of taking control of your own distribution (Mike's point) is a good one and in today's world there are some options although the Hollywood studios are trying to limit that by virtue of the HD-DVD / BluRay war and the fees for BluRay authorship and title licensing. At least at this time the Internet is OK for showing the content, but not yet for showing the quality of production and giving people a full experience using the available quality. Trying to set up a direct competition with the studios using less expensive equipment and non-Hollywood material still requires a significant investment and a fairly steep risk (Richard's point).

If I understand the problem that David is trying to solve, it is to find a means to show high-resolution, high quality, independent film/video work and maintain that high-end in the presentation to a broad audience. His initial plan was to use existing theaters. He feels that option is gone.

The direct question he seems to be posing is to ask if anyone has an idea of how to accomplish his aim. Although he posed the question with a relatively narrow horizon, I do think the question is valid for essentially all aspects of independent work. Wouldn't it be great if there was a venue that independent's could use to present their great stuff?

A more fundamental question that underlies this proposition was also hinted at by Richard: Is there an customer base to support independent work that is presented in high quality formats?

At least right now, I certainly do not have the answer to that question, but it is at the heart of what we all want -- an enthusiastic audience to see our work presented in all its glory.

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