Here are some extended notes and links on digital cinema (aka D-cinema, aka E-cinema). I’m not an expert in this field, but I dip into it occasionally, and what follows is principally an exercise for my own benefit in collecting my notes and thoughts — if anyone else finds this of interest, so much the better. Such commentary as there is is not deeply considered: just my usual prejudices.
Firstly, should it be D-cinema or E-cinema? I quote from this authoritative Canadian source on the subject: “E-cinema or electronic cinema is both a generic term incorporating both D-cinema or digital cinema and E-cinema when it is specifically used to describe a less expensive form of digital cinema with lower levels of illumination and definition.” In the latter context, E-cinema is about half the resolution of D-cinema (measured in thousands of lines), and less than half the price. D-cinema is claimed to have the same quality as 35mm film projection, as currently used in most cinemas.
State of play
I did a little bit of web research on digital cinema in 2002 and found the Hollywood Unstrung report. The two-page executive summary is a free download, with a liberal dose of hyperventilating guff about revolution, ‘D-Day’ and tiresome comparisons with piracy in the music industry. The conclusion is less mind-blowing: “Incumbents of the ‘old’ power structure will continue to have a lot of clout — for now.” In fact commentators are saying that the emphasis on security and copy-protection in digital cinema is meaning that control is actually shifting further away from cinema exhibitors to studios.
Two years ago there were just a privileged handful of cinemas with digital projection in the UK. They were able to put on special digital screenings of the latest Star Wars movie. One of the few was Brixton’s wonderful Ritzy cinema — but I wonder how many of the 370,000 admissions it gets each year know about the digital projector and its benefits. The Ritzy’s web page still proclaims “It is also the only cinema in the country with two digital projectors” (which I suspect is no longer true — the National Film Theatre’s new Digital Test Bed seems to claim several). But so what?
Digital projection is common at industry-insider events — the Sundance festival has been showing an increasing proportion of its films digitally over the last six or seven years (no doubt with massive sponsorship from suppliers) — not yet for the masses.
The earliest report on D-cinema I came across was one of a series that Screen Digest have now produced, called The Big Screen Goes Digital. I think (though I cannot now find the original reference) this report claimed that by 2004 “almost all studio pictures will be available in both digital and 35mm formats.”
Bringing it up to date, here’s a January 2004 Financial Times article that reviews the current state of play, and reflects sceptically on the prospects for radical revolution in cinema exhibition.
Standards & Technology
Lots of acronyms and jargons here, so here’s a glossary.
Digital Light Processing (DLP™) is generally held to have superceded LCD technology. (LED and CRT products exist, but I guess they’re not really ‘projectors’, and have specialist applications.) Texas Instruments, who originated DLP technology, have a DLP site, including a newsletter.
Here’s a guide to buying digital projectors, including home and business models as well as ‘auditorium’ size.
There’s a struggle to determine standards, with all the usual tussles between proprietary de factoindustry standards and de jure standards, and even within these categories. Here’s an old BBC story about major studios collaborating on standards. There are also pros and cons between MPEG4 and MPEG2: the former offers better compression; the latter better quality. That’s my superficial understanding, and, having got this far, I’d rather watch my washing machine go through its cycle than keep up with this stuff.
Last year Screen Digest produced an ‘audience and user preference’ study for digital cinema. From the freely available summary of the report, they seem to conclude that none of the findings are genuinely trustworthy (the authors more or less suggests that Star Wars fans are a herd of sheep who say whatever they think George Lucas would like them to say).
I saw the digital version of Casablanca earlier this month, and it was good to have no crackles or scratches: you could see better how thin the film set backgrounds were. But (pace filmmakers everywhere) there are only a minority of films that depend heavily on projection quality for the viewing experience.
It becomes clear pretty quickly that improvements in viewing experience are not what digital cinema is really about. Says the Screen Digest report, “Whether audiences believe that digital is better, and are prepared to even pay more, is of secondary concern. What truly matters to the media’s [sic] development is reaction by exhibitors themselves.” Which brings us on to the business dimension…
… where Screen Digest has produced another report on business models. Never mind the audience, never mind even old debates about technology and standards, the focus of the industry right now is on business and finance. This report promises, rather ominously, a “detailed breakdown of ALL films screened in digital cinemas in US and internationally gives explanation [sic] of hidden costs and problems of digital releasing.”
What this is about is automating the most profoundly boring ‘business process’ in the film industry: shipping the stuff around.
Distribution is just a corporate re-engineering exercise when overhauling existing infrastructure, but a bit more exciting when little or infrastructure exists previously, or when different kinds of content are being distributed. The Business Models report notes that many thousand low-end networked digital projectors are installed in cinemas around the world for purposes other than feature-film exhibition. The Guardian recently ran a story on the growth of digital cinema in Brazil. And Bollywood is also embracing digital distribution, according to this article. Other countries making strides in developing a digital infrastructure include South Africa and, less surprisingly, Singapore.
What else would it take for digital cinema to matter? I come back to my hobby horse about ‘punk economics’ and creativity. In this field, that means that, if it’s possible to make films without having to toady up to infrastructure owners and win the approval of the established order, then the prospects for someone getting something innovative and refreshing to an audience increase. Here’s a Wired News article that suggests that independent filmmakers will be able to save money and hassle by bypassing 35-mm film prints.
Perhaps cinemas are part of the established order and deserve to be bypassed (undoubtedly some are and some do)? I think it’s really encouraging that in recent months Time Out has started an ‘alt.cinema’ category to cater for the growing number of screenings of out of the way films in out of the way places. (See, for example, the Secret Cinema programme.)
There are now several touring digital film festivals, like RESFEST, though I’ve always found these to be a bit of a mixed bag (I saw Saint Etienne introduce their Finisterre film at onedotzero last year, and this screening had negligible connection with any identifiably digital aesthetic). I guess the films are often shot digitally and projected traditionally.
Patrick von Sychowski of Screen Digest says we should stop thinking of digital cinemas as cinemas that are digital. Instead we should start thinking “in terms of Digitally Networked Cinema … where the important part is that they are networked, not that they are digital. Spectrum VNS have shown the way with the same film/festival playing across multiple cities on the same day and time. Expect to see more of this type of coordinated event, and not just for live pop concerts.” Intuitively this feels right. And if an alliance of Microsoft and big studios prevents their content from being networked in this way, let’s just show something else.
The NFT Digital Test Beds links provide several links to relevant organisations and resources not covered here. I collected a few links on digital film linked to the onedotzero festival in 2001, and some more links on digital video production, aimed more at children and young people. You can find many more relevant articles by searching on ‘digital cinema’ at Wired News Culture Stories. Finally see my earlier posting on Digital Cinema and Changing Film Aesthetics.
I discovered many of the above stories and links directly or indirectly via Patrick von Sychowski’s excellent (and free) E-cinema Alert email list. To subscribe, follow the instructions on the NFT Digital Test Beds links page.
These views are those of DJ Alchemi Ltd, but not of any other company to which I have an affiliation.