Digital cinema refers to the use of digital technology to distribute and project motion pictures. The final movie can be distributed via hard drives, DVDs or satellite and projected using a digital projector instead of a conventional film projector. Digital cinema is distinct from high-definition television and in particular, is not dependent on using television or HDTV standards, aspect ratios, or frame rates. Digital projectors capable of 2K resolution began deploying in 2005, and since 2006, the pace has accelerated. HDTV and pre-recorded HD disks could put pressure on movie theaters to offer something to compete with the home HD experience.
In this article, 2K and 4K refer to images with 2048 and 4096 horizontal pixel resolution, respectively.
Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a joint venture of the six major studios, published a system specification for digital cinema. Briefly, the specification calls for picture encoding using the ISO/IEC 15444-1 "JPEG2000" (.jp2) standard and use of the CIE XYZ color space at 12 bits per component encoded with a 2.6 gamma applied at projection, and audio using the "Broadcast Wave" (.wav) format at 24 bits and 48 kHz or 96 kHz sampling, controlled by an XML-format Composition Playlist, into an MXF-compliant file at a maximum data rate of 250 Mbit/s. Details about encryption, key management, and logging are all discussed in the specification as are the minimum specifications for the projectors employed including the color gamut, the contrast ratio and the brightness of the image. While much of the specification codifies work that had already been ongoing in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the specification is important in establishing a content owner framework for the distribution and security of first-release motion picture content.
Digital cinema conforming to the DCI Standard is referred to within the film industry as D-Cinema while all other forms of digital cinema are referred to as E-Cinema. Thus, while D-Cinema is a defined standard, though one that is still partly being framed by SMPTE as of 2007, E-Cinema may be anything, ranging from a DVD player connected to a consumer projector to something that approaches the quality of D-Cinema without conforming to some of the standards. Even D-Cinema itself has evolved over time before the DCI standards were framed. However, the current DCI standards were made with the intention of standing the test of time, much like 35 mm film which has evolved but still retained compatibility over a substantial part of a century.
In addition to DCI's work, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) released its Digital Cinema System Requirements. The document addresses the requirements of digital cinema systems from the operational needs of the exhibitor, focusing on areas not addressed by DCI, including access for the visually impaired and hearing impaired, workflow inside the cinema, and equipment interoperability. In particular, NATO's document details requirements for the Theatre Management System (TMS), the governing software for digital cinema systems within a theatre complex, and provides direction for the development of security key management systems. As with DCI's document, NATO's document is also important to the SMPTE standards effort.
Three manufacturers have licensed the TI-developed DLP Cinema technology. Barco, Christie Digital Systems and NEC. Barco launched the DP-series of 2K DCI-compliant Digital cinema projectors, next to this Barco designs and develops visualization products for a variety of selected professional markets. Christie is the maker of the CP2000 line of projectors, and long established in traditional film projector technology throughout the U.S. NEC manufactures the Starus NC2500S, NC1500C and NC800C 2K projectors for large, medium and small screen respectively and the Starus Digital Cinema Server system, as well as other equipment to connect PCs, analog/digital tape decks and satellite receivers, DVD, and off-air broadcast, etc. for pre-show and special presentations. While NEC is a relative newcomer to Digital Cinema, Christie is the main player in the U.S. and Barco takes the lead in Europe and Asia. In addition Digital Projection Incorporated (DPI) designed and sold a few DLP Cinema units when TI's 2K technology first debuted but then abandoned the D-Cinema market while continuing to offer DLP-based projectors for non-cinema purposes. Although based on the same 2K TI "light engine" as those of the major players they are so rare as to be virtually unknown in the industry.
The other technology is from Sony and is labeled "SXRD" technology. Their projector provides 4096x2160 4K resolution and is priced very competitively with the lower resolution 2K 2048x1080 DLP projectors.
Other manufacturers have been developing digital projector technology, but these have not yet been deployed into motion picture theaters and are not commercially available in versions that conform to the DCI specification.
As of July 2007, there are some cinemas in Singapore showing digital 4K films to public using Sony's CineAlta 4K digital projector. They are located at Golden Village Cinema in Vivocity (Hall 11), Eng Wah Cinema in Suntec (Hall 3), Shaw Cinema in Bugis (Hall 1 & 3) and at Cathay Cineplex (Hall 7).
In September 2007, Muvico Theaters Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, Illinois became the first theater in North America to have Sony's CineAlta 4K digital projectors for all 18 screens. Muvico Theaters intends on opening more theaters in the last quarter of 2008 and well into 2009 all utilizing Sony's CineAlta 4K digital projector.
By October 2007, DG2L Technologies was reported to have supplied 1500 Digital Cinema Systems to UFO Moviez Ltd. in India and Europe.
As of July, 2007, 1400 screens in the U.S. have been equipped with digital cinema projectors including a dozen theaters where the Sony 4K projector has been installed. In continental Europe, XDC is servicing over 300 screens in 10 countries, where Germany has the leading territory with over 100 installations.
The UK is home to Europe's first DCI compliant fully digital multiplex cinemas, Odeon Hatfield and Odeon Surrey Quays (London) have a total of 18 digital screens and were both launched on Friday 9 February 2007.
As of March 2007, with the release of Disney's Meet the Robinsons, about 600 screens have been equipped with 2K digital projectors that are equipped with Real D Cinema's stereoscopic 3D technology, marketed under the Disney Digital 3-D brand.
In mid 2006, about 400 theaters have been equipped with 2K digital projectors with the number increasing every month.
In February 2005, Arts Alliance Media was selected to roll out the UK Film Council’s Digital Screen Network (DSN), a $20M contract to install and operate Europe’s largest 2K digital cinema network. By March 2007, 230 of the 241 screens had been installed on schedule, with the remaining 11 to be installed later in 2007 when cinemas have completed building works or construction.
Chicken Little from Disney, with its experimental release of the film in digital 3D, increased the number of projectors using the 2K format. Several digital 3D films will surface in 2006 and several prominent filmmakers have committed to making their next productions in stereo 3D.
By early 2006, Access Integrated Technologies (AccessIT) had announced agreements with nearly all of the major film studios and several exhibitors that enable the company to roll-out its end-to-end digital cinema systems.
In August 2006, the Malayalam digital movie Moonnamathoral was distributed via satellite to cinemas; thus becoming the first Malayalam digital film to be so distributed. This was done using the end-to-end digital cinema system developed by Singapore based DG2L Technologies.
On May 1, 2008, Public Radio International (PRI) spearheaded the first-ever digital cinema event in public media by working with Ira Glass and Chicago Public Radio on This American Life Live!. The event was presented exclusively in select theatres by National CineMedia's (NCM) Fathom, in partnership with BY Experience and Chicago Public Radio, and in association with Public Radio International.
While a theater can purchase a film projector for US$50,000 and expect an average life of 30–40 years, a digital cinema playback system including server/media block/and projector can cost 3–4 times as much, and is at higher risk for component failures and technological obsolescence. Experience with computer-based media systems show that average economic lifetimes are only on the order of 5 years with some units lasting until about 10 years before they are replaced.
Archiving digital material is also turning out to be both tricky and costly. In a 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be "enormously higher - 1100% higher - than the cost of storing film masters." Furthermore, digital archiving faces challenges due to the insufficient temporal qualities of today's digital storage: no current media, be it optical discs, magnetic hard drives or digital tape, can reliably store a film for a hundred years, something that properly stored and handled film can do.
Transfer of content between remote locations was slow and had limited capacity. It wasn't until the late 1990s that feature length projects could be sent over the 'wire' (Internet or dedicated fiber links).
There were many prototype systems developed that claim a first in some form of digital presentation. However, few of these had a significant impact on the advance of the industry. Key highlights in the development of digital cinema would likely include: demonstrations by TI of their DMD technology, real-time playback of compressed hi-resolution files by various vendors, and early HD presentations from D5 tape to digital projectors.
Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) was formed in March 2002 as a joint project of the motion picture studios (Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios) to develop a system specification for digital cinema. In cooperation with the American Society of Cinematographers, DCI created standard evaluation material (the ASC/DCI StEM material) and developed tests of 2K and 4K playback and compression technologies. DCI published their specification in 2005.
One claim for the first digital cinema demonstration comes from JVC. On March 19, 1998, they collaborated on a digital presentation at a cinema in London. Several clips from popular films were encoded onto a remote server, and sent via fibre optic for display to a collection of interested Industry parties.
The Last Broadcast made cinematic history on October 23, 1998, when it became the first feature to be theatrically released digitally, via satellite download to theaters across the United States. An effort headed by Wavelength Releasing, Texas Instruments, Digital Projection Inc. and Loral Space, it successfully demonstrated what would become a template for future releases. In 1999, it was repeated utilizing QuVIS technology across Europe, including the Cannes Film Festival, making The Last Broadcast the first feature to be screened digitally at the Cannes Film Festival.
Several feature films were shown in 1999 using DLP prototype projectors and early wavelet based servers. For example, Walt Disney Pictures Bicentennial Man was presented using a Qubit server manufactured by QuVIS of Topeka, Kansas. DVD ROM was used to store the compressed data file. The DVD ROMs were loaded into the QuBit server hard drives for playout. The file size for Bicentennial Man was 42 GB with an average data rate of 43 Mbit/s.
In 2000, Walt Disney, Texas Instruments and Technicolor with the cooperation of several U.S. and international exhibitors, began to deploy prototype Digital Cinema systems in commercial theatres. The systems were assembled and installed by Technicolor using the TI mark V prototype projector, a special Christie lamphouse, and the QuBit server with custom designed automation interfaces.
Technicolor manufactured the DVDs for uploading on these test systems and was responsible for sending technicians out to the locations for every new feature film that was played. The technicians would typically spend ten or so hours to load the files from the DVD to the QuBit, set up the server to play the files, and then set up the projector. A full rehearsal screening of the feature was mandatory as was the requirement to have back up DVDs and backup QuBits available should something fail.
The systems were eventually replaced or upgraded after TI made improvements to the projectors and Technicolor developed a purpose-built digital cinema server in a venture with Qualcomm, the engineering giant from San Diego best known for advanced mobile phone technology. The new systems were called AMS for Auditorium Management Systems and were the first digital cinema servers designed to be user friendly and operate reliably in a computer-hostile environment such as a projection booth. Most importantly, they provided a complete solution for content security.
The AMS used removable hard disk drives as the transport mechanism for the files. This eliminated the time required to upload the DVD ROMs to the local hard drives and provided the ability to switch programs quickly. For security, the AMS used a media block type system that placed a sealed electronics package within the projector housing. The server output only 3DES encrypted data and the media block did the decryption at the point just before playout.
The first secure encrypted digital cinema feature was Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The system functioned well but was eventually replaced because of the need to create a standard data package for D-cinema distribution.
Universal Pictures used their film Serenity as the first DCI-compliant DCP to be delivered shown to an audience at a remote theater, although it was not distributed this way to the public. Inside Man was their first DCP cinema release, and was transmitted to 20 theatres in the United States along with two trailers.
In April 2005, DG2L Technologies announced that it had been awarded the multi-million dollar contract for the world's largest satellite based MPEG4 digital cinema deployment to be done in India, which encompassed 2000 theaters for UFO (United Film Organizers), a subsidiary of the Valuable Media Group. In Mar 2006, United Film Organizers Moviez (UFO Moviez), had reached a significant milestone—surpassing 30,000 shows using the DG2L Cinema System platform. This figure increased to 100,000 shows in August 2006. In September 2006, UFO Moviez acquired 51% stake in DG2L Technologies in a deal estimated at around $50 million.