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Digital Distribution Made Simple

Since I’ve recently started making my first “proper” or “real” film – as opposed to 48Hour shorts and suchlike; and since I’ve previously only ever worked in pre-production and on set – apart from some fiddling with iMovie on the aforesaid shorts – it seemed a good idea to attend the seminar at Images and Sound on the new “Digital Cinema Package” (DCP). When I booked my place I was warned that they were already down to standing room only; and so it proved to be when I entered Images’ small upstairs relaxation area.

Perhaps I should explain first that the DCP is a format for delivery of a film to cinemas by a distributor, developed and bought into by the 7 major worldwide distributors and thus well on its way to becoming the default format – at $10,000 a pop.

Grant Baker, Images’ CEO, chaired the presentation, with their DMC Supervisor Tristan Simpson providing the technical detail. Christine Massey of Sony and Bruce Blackley of Event Cinemas discussed the distribution and exhibition aspects.

At present, NZ has 430 cinema screens (in 62 locations) with 135 of them digital – but although many locations still have 35mm projection only, the more significant fact is that already a number of locations are fully digital, including Te Rapa (Hamilton), Kaitaia, Timaru, Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika. If that doesn’t seem portentous, bear in mind that in the nation of Norway (sadly now infamous for that other kind of shooting) cinema projection has already become completely digital.

Obviously, conversion from 35mm to digital projection is expensive. It was $150,000 per screen, has now dropped to $70,000, and it will drop further; although there is no immediate profit gain for cinema operators in converting, as ticket prices remain the same. As a result of this, a contract is being negotiated between distributors and exhibitors (one already operates in Australia) to help pay for the installation of digital projectors and servers. Basically, distributors will agree to pay a “Virtual Print Fee” (VPF) each time a film is screened digitally. As 35mm disappears from our screens, these fees may also eventually disappear. It’s worth noting here that Sony say they will not be able to supply any 35mm print within a couple of years; they’re already having difficulty securing used prints.

Presently, the NZFC will often pay for a local film to get a 35mm print, then lease that print back to the producer. As the conversion to digital projection gathers pace, the NZFC will no doubt need to sort out a VPF policy of its own.

Exhibitors are largely meeting the conversion costs themselves, although apparently some local councils in smaller towns are assisting their local independent cinema owners. Distributors are meeting the costs of providing the hard drives to transport the films around the cinemas, and also the cost of security encryption key bundles known as KDMs (Key Delivery Messages) which are created as part of a DCP.

At present, distributors of major films have to maintain the costs of the provision of both 35 and digital formats.

Then the existence of 2D and 3D formats, plus Imax 2D and 3D, complicates matters. But as the rollout is completed, within perhaps 2 years (and 35mm disappears, probably within 10 years, very likely sooner), cost savings should be huge. No 35mm prints to transport, no large special storage spaces needed. Exhibitors love digital for the absence of risk of print damage and storage problems. Not only are the hard drives used to deliver a film to cinemas both convenient and cheap (around $200 for a 150 to 250GB unit), they are reusable and recyclable. The USB sticks (1GB) that can be used for delivering trailers are even more convenient. Then there’s the elimination of the problem of 35mm prints ending up in landfills.

Mind you, some might still dispute the assertion made by one of the presenters that not only is digital cheaper than 35mm, but “the digital image is so much better!”

Eventually, delivery of a film to a cinema may happen via ultra-fast broadband, as is possible in other countries already. But maybe in NZ we should aim for doing it via satellite, given our broadband and telcos’ behavioural history.

But for now, DCP delivery happens thus:
Once a hard drive containing the film is physically delivered to a cinema, the film is downloaded to the cinema’s server – which can take anything from a few minutes to 8 hours or so, depending on what else the server is doing at the time. The KDM (Key Delivery Message) that has been created as part of the DCP has a UID (Unique Identification Number – Don’t you love all those acronyms?) – and a server number, and even a projector serial number. What’s more, the KDM contains instructions restricting the days and hours when a film can be played, which can be set from as little as 2 hours for a preview screening up to 3 months or more for a regular season. One hard drive can be used to supply a number of projectors within a complex, though each requires its own individual KDM; this allows a film to be moved around the auditoria within a cinema complex. Equally, a single hard drive can ingest a film into a number of different venues in turn, but again each venue will require a unique KDM to “unlock” the film for screening. KDMs are normally emailed to the exhibitor 2-3 days before the day they become operable.

The big bonus in this system is the huge hit it makes against piracy. A DVD can be played and copied anywhere, while a DCP’s encryption makes piracy almost impossible, since every hard drive is individually coded and needs the KDM key to unlock the file. Of course, an exhibitor could play an unencrypted file, but for the distributor that makes no sense. This all means that if there is no contract between the exhibitor and the distributor, there is no screening; a distributor can hold back the generation of the KDM if they choose – the power is back in the hands of the distributor!

There are some considerable advantages beyond cheapness when compared with 35mm – not least being the greater compatibility with digital image acquisition. There’s also the elimination of the need for things like emulsion tests, digital being less prone to damage, and the absence of generation quality loss. There are other considerations to be taken into account in commissioning a DCP:

  • Frame size – whether 2K or 4K; 4K will play on a 2K system, though 2K looks better on a 4K one
  • Frame rate – 24 or 48 fps
  • 2D or 3D? – or both
  • Sound – stereo, 5.1 or 7.1

As one Auckland producer presently in post with a feature film commented: “My deliverables list is changing every day!”

But there are also limitations in the DCP.

It must be done at a post-house, we’re told, because of the vast amounts of data involved.

Then, very surprisingly, each DCP can support ONLY ONE audio version, and ONLY ONE subtitle version. Given that a little old home DVD can contain subtitles in half a dozen languages, this rather gobsmacks me. However, while the first DCP will set you back the $10K mentioned earlier for a feature (and perhaps $1K for a short film), an extra copy with a different subtitle language, for example, should only cost some $300 to $500. Is this problem the result of a lack of design forethought, a means to extract more money from impoverished film-makers, or a genuine technological limitation beyond the comprehension of my innocent simpleton brain which will be remedied sometime in the future?

Thinking of potential future advances, the one disappointment for me that evening was the discovery that the DCP does not have any facility for ensuring that the cinema projectionist is forced to use the proper aspect ratio, nor ensure that the full image frame is visible on the screen. Perhaps I expect too much. But, as technology continues its inexorable advance, one can hope and dream…

In sum, this is all fine for the distributors of movies from overseas, and those dealing with the bigger budget local films. But there is a very real and serious fear that as all cinemas convert to the DCP system (a process that appears to be inevitable), the makers and distributors of small independent films, one-off documentaries and short films who cannot afford a DCP will be locked out. For our small Kiwi film culture, this would be truly tragic.