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High Tech Hollywood: From Satellite To Movie Screen

By | May 1, 2003

      If you live in the United States, there is a good chance you bought one of the estimated 1.6 billion movie tickets that were sold here last year. At the same time, it is highly unlikely you were aware of the first Spirit of Fire Film Festival in Siberia in January. After all, Khanty-Mansiysk is not exactly a household name. Still, Russia is one of the places where many people believe the e-cinema over satellite revolution may soon take off like a rocket.

      What exactly is digital cinema or d-cinema? And what is e-cinema? "D-cinema (or digital cinema) represents the core offering of the movie presentation itself including compression, transport, storage, display, visual quality, projection and encryption of the feature film. D-cinema requirements are higher than HDTV when it comes to pixel depth and brightness," says Sam Matheny who heads the digital cinema and e-cinema initiative at Microspace. "E-cinema (or electronic cinema) applies to anything else that happens in the theater, other than d-cinema. For example, the ability to deliver ads, trailers and any digital signage via satellite." E-cinema also refers to alternative content, such as concerts or sporting events, which are transported and displayed in a digital format, but with the extremely high visual quality that is a requirement of this technology.

      Take a look at another definition. "E-cinema is a superset of all things involved that deliver content electronically to a commercial cinema screen, including live events, streaming [and] advertisements, as well as movies in digital cinema format," says Curt Behlmer, executive director of the recently formed Digital Cinema Providers Group. "D-cinema is a subset of e-cinema made up primarily of ‘first run’ cinema content. It consists of movie content following the same path as traditional films released and exhibited in commercial theaters prior to secondary markets, such as home video, airline and broadcast."

      "Although there is no official definition of d-cinema today, image quality is the biggest concern for Hollywood when looking at d-cinema standards," says Jim Graham, vice president of sales and marketing at Topeka-based QuVis Corp. "E-cinema is more broadly defined and a lot looser in terms of what is acceptable to screen. You do not encounter any rigid rules with e-cinema pertaining to what viewers see in terms of the high resolution visual experience, whereas very formal and tightly defined specifications are taking shape surrounding the visual presentation of d-cinema."

      Satellite distribution will be feasible once there are enough d-cinema sites up and running, according to Robert Gibbons, director of marketing and communications for Kodak Digital Cinema. "It will be the preferred method of distribution," says Gibbons. "As point-to-multipoint distribution makes economic sense, we plan to use satellite delivery."

      Kodak is conducting some beta tests with the Kodak Digital Cinema Operating System in multiplexes in London, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles. Kodak, in partnership with JVC, is developing a Kodak Digital Cinema projector, but it is about a year away from market availability. Until that time, Kodak will not be involved with the digital distribution of movies, according to Gibbons.

      "At this point, Microspace is preparing for a business that we believe may begin in the next couple of years. Other satellite companies are sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) group to complete work on the much more stringent security standards, among other things," says Matheny.

      "Many companies, including Lockheed Martin, Vyvx, Loral, Euphon in Italy and Microspace, are potentially interested in providing satellite distribution for d-cinema and related entertainment industries," says Behlmer, who is in frequent contact with the DCI group. "To my knowledge, Boeing Digital Cinema is the only company currently delivering Hollywood content via satellite in North America for theatres featuring d-cinema systems."

      "D-cinema distribution via satellite is not pre-ordained, but it is the most sensible long-term solution for the large-scale release of any film in digital format," says Patrick von Sychowski, senior analyst/digital cinema at London-based Screen Digest Ltd. At the end of last year, Screen Digest estimated there were 161 digital cinema installations at 143 locations around the world.

      Moving To New Architectures

      Peter Wilson, at U.K.-based Snell and Wilcox, chairs the European Digital Cinema Forum (EDCF) Technical Module. "We will shortly move into the new architectures required in the future," says Wilson, who adds that when it comes to multicasting digital content, several EDCF telco members have already made strides in this regard. "In fact, most European telcos have made successful tests. Sweden has a fully operational network. Several others have e-cinema systems for commercials. There will be significant installations in the next two years in Europe."

      What things are preventing or slowing any broad deployment? "Entrepreneurs with big pockets," says Wilson. According to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), worldwide global standards are needed for the technology, along with quality levels that exceed that of film, and comprehensive business plans that are fair. "NATO is agnostic about delivery methods. Though I acknowledge the benefits of satellite transmission, we hope to facilitate standards that apply to satellite, broadband, disc and any other possible form of transmission," Fithian says.

      "Specs that will set the framework for global standards will likely be completed this year. More progress (in the quality of the d-cinema projectors) needs to be made as the evolution continues," adds Fithian. "DCI and NATO [have] begun formal discussions of the business issues. We hope to have an outline of the business plans by the end of this year."

      Fithian appears to be quite optimistic. "If the specs come to fruition, and if the business plans are developed, we could begin to see a d-cinema roll-out next year," he says with emphasis. "We do not consider the 160 d-cinema sites in existence around the world today to constitute a roll-out. Those are test sites that do not match the coming standards, nor are they part of a comprehensive business plan."

      "NATO’s position is the same as the studios’ official line, which is not to tie themselves to any one particular operator or delivery platform for fear of gatekeeper issues. This is particularly the case since Elsacom in Europe and Boeing in the United States are the only official d-cinema satellite companies out there right now," says von Sychowski. "Off the record, most studios readily acknowledge that satellite is the best solution."

      Boeing Digital Cinema opened three movies simultaneously in February of this year from three studios–Disney, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers–in 30 theaters nationwide via satellite, according to Frank Stirling, executive director of Boeing Digital Cinema. Boeing streamed these films along with ads and trailers at 24-54 Mbs via Telstar 6.

      "This all involves a technology transition of significant magnitude. With d-cinema, the average feature film is a 1.5 Terabyte uncompressed file, which is compressed down to 60 Gigabytes (GB) to 80 GB before going up on the satellite at 54 Mbs," says Stirling. "Europe is experimenting with e-cinema at 9.3-10 Mbs. We can transfer d-cinema content to a server at 27 Mbs -33 Mbs."

      Boeing deployed MPEG-based servers from Avica and EVS in Belgium along with Viasat and International Datacasting satellite receivers. Servers from QuVis, Grass Valley, and GDC in Hong Kong have been tested by Boeing as well.

      "The studios are very excited by d-cinema. They want a single set of standards, and they want to deploy a single infrastructure. Boeing is one of the lead players along with Kodak and Technicolor," says Stirling, who adds that Casablanca Films in Brazil is now experimenting with satellite delivered digital cinema, too.

      D-Cinema Customers Need Flexibility

      Regal Cinemedia Corp., the media subsidiary of Knoxville, TN-based Regal Entertainment Group, has deployed a Digital Content Network (DCN) in 15 markets, including nine out of the top 10, reaching approximately 160 theaters and 2,000 screens. By the end of 2003, the DCN will reach more than 375 theaters and approximately 4,500 screens in 42 of the top 52 U.S. markets, according to a Regal Cinemedia spokesperson.

      Hughes Network Systems’ (HNS) Direcway content delivery, live streaming, network management and mission-critical back-up services lie at the core of Regal Cinemedia’s DCN. Over the Direcway pipe flows everything from commercials to live concerts and feature films, but perhaps most interesting is the company’s innovative use of satellite technology to create a brand new revenue stream.

      Traditionally, during down times when movies are not showing, theatres are not making money. Regal has revolutionized that model by reselling theater venues during off hours to corporations such as Coca Cola, Disney, General Motors, Microsoft and Nike, who use the theatres for events including live meetings, training sessions, product launches and press conferences. Through Direcway technology, companies are able to reach hundreds or thousands of employees at the same time from dispersed locations around the country.

      In addition, another new revenue stream that Regal Cinemedia started exploring earlier this year involves the screening of short digital videos in the 20-minute slot before the feature film is shown. Regal is partnering with Convex, NBC, Turner and Vivendi Universal, and plans to distribute this content to 80 percent of Regal’s more than 6,000 screens by the end of 2003.

      "D-cinema is out there in the future due to the high costs of new projector equipment, and lingering image quality issues, while e-cinema is driven primarily today by the need for ad distribution on a multicast basis," says Emil Regard, vice president of sales and marketing at HNS.

      For the Regal Cinemedia DCN, a Direcway DW 4010 with a built-in integrated MPEG encoder card is linked to a catcher or server, which has a Windows-based multicast application built by HNS installed. In this instance, the server is a Compaq Evo D510 desktop PC from HP.

      "Bandwidth allocation is real tricky. These d-cinema customers need flexibility and a lot more bandwidth capacity. And they need it in bursts, which they can pay for as they go," says Regard. "In addition, we have content dependent Forward Error Correction (FEC) with the customer able to set the rate. It is built into the satellite link layer, and we have it at the application layer, too."

      Multiple Available Tools

      Numerous companies like Skystream Networks are prepared to offer their products today in support of satellite distribution of d-cinema and e-cinema. Skystream Networks has zBand Content Delivery Software, an SMR (Source Media Router/IP encapsulator), and the EVR-7000 (Edge Video Router 7000), a powerful edge appliance designed for delivering live and pre-recorded video content such as movies.

      "Skystream Networks can present an end-to-end solution today for the delivery of movie files to cinemas across the country," says Preman Narayanan, senior product marketing manager at Skystream Networks. "We do not have customers for this yet. We are currently partnered with Immeon on targeting digital cinema-type applications."

      Immeon Networks LLC is a joint-venture broadband-on demand service company formed by Viasat Inc. and Loral Skynet. Skystream’s solution provides file delivery over satellite links for nationwide coverage. zBand serves as an integrated platform at the Immeon Network Operations Center for content management, in addition to handling bandwidth and network resource allocations.

      "D-cinema has been plagued by the high cost of the digital projectors required at every cinema screen," says Narayanan. "The delivery system is very cost-effective and is not a hindrance to the success of this project. The standard for digital video delivery over satellite is Digital Video Broadcast (DVB). Skystream’s equipment is compliant with DVB, and this allows for the interoperable mix of different products from vendors for a digital cinema solution."

      According to Howard Barouxis, director of sales at Thales Broadcast and Multimedia, the mechanics of e-cinema are pretty straightforward as they relate to satellite applications. The topology of any solution contains well-known components to operators familiar with IP and DVB, and Thales has a product lineup, which includes its Opal IP Encapsulator (IPE), Amethyst smart switch and its OpenStream multicast solution.

      "Files to date are stored on very large storage devices since the content primarily has been uncompressed video in an IP format. The storage is connected to a LAN that has dual Opal IPEs on it for redundancy," says Barouxis. "In some applications, you might also want to have a server that would manage multicast content and provide FEC. For this purpose, Thales would use OpenStream or Fazzt software from Kencast depending on the needs of the particular application."

      The MPEG-2/ASI/DVB output of the Opal IPEs would in turn be connected to a Thales Amethyst Smart switch, which provides redundant switching and transport stream analysis, while monitoring all DVB tables and maintaining the integrity of the transport stream. The output of the Thales Amethyst switch would feed a modulator. The signal would then be converted to RF and sent out over satellite.

      "If there is a move to compressed video like MPEG-2 or MPEG-4, with MPEG-7 with its metadata capabilities and MPEG-21 with its Digital Rights Management capabilities somewhere in the mix, there might be more of these applications that would roll-out, especially to more niche locales," says Barouxis.

      Europe Keeping Its Eye On The Target

      With the EDCF making steady progress, and with the other projects underway such as the European Union’s MIDIA and one at the European Space Agency involving an engineering model, a growing momentum is building around the e-cinema application.

      Arduino Patacchini, multimedia director at Eutelsat, sees the limited number of movie screens, especially in relatively underserved towns with populations of 30,000 or less, as an important reason for satellite delivered e-cinema.

      "A large population in Europe does not enjoy the benefit of being in close proximity to a cinema. In Italy, that number may be as high as nine million people, for example," says Patacchini. "The creation of a large number of smaller e-cinema venues would open up this unserved market using satellite feeds and 6-meter screens. This would require an investment of approximately $150,000 Euros (US$159,000) per room."

      The cost of satellite delivery is not an obstacle, and with storage costs dropping sharply throughout the past five years, Patacchini is watching Italian companies–Euphon Group’s Microcinema, for example, is planning to equip 25 cinemas; Elsacom has already equipped seven theatres, and is using Eutelsat capacity–for signs that this business model is going to mature rapidly.

      Sebastiano Musini heads the e-cinema project known as Microcinema S.r.l at the Euphon Group. He describes the evolution of Microcinema as a direct offshoot of Euphon’s advanced experience in digital image processing and satellite transmission. "Building on Euphon’s experience in post production division and with Euphon’s experience in satellite transmission, e-cinema is a revolutionary project propelled by Euphon’s high technology edge and access to top quality digital content," says Musini.

      Satellite delivery is very appealing to Microcinema for three important reasons, according to Musini. First, by using satellite, it is possible to reach the vast majority of the Italian population, which is scattered in many small but densely populated centers that are difficult to reach otherwise. Second, satellite distribution is a more secure means to transfer films and other related content to cinemas. Finally, satellite distribution offers the opportunity to centralize scheduling and increase control of play-out at the venue side.

      "The signal is encrypted before, during and after being transferred and venues play out the film only after receiving the unique key from Microcinema," says Musini.

      "E-cinema can become a revolutionary distribution method in developing countries in particular," he adds.

      Asia: The Pace Is Picking Up

      Asia is abuzz over e-cinema. JSAT Corp. has an e-cinema venture, T-Joy, using its capacity. Space Communications Corp. (SCC) also reports that it is involved in delivering e- cinema content via satellite.

      Although JSAT is not involved in delivering e-cinema content via satellite, JSAT is a shareholder in T-Joy Co. Ltd., established by TOEI Co. Ltd., a large Japanese film and entertainment company, and others in August 2000. T-Joy delivers movies to more than 10 screens in eight d-cinema complexes in Japan via a 27 MHz Ku-band transponder on JCSAT 4 using the QuBit digital compression format developed by QuVis.

      "T-Joy delivers movies to digital cinema complexes via our satellite, removing the need to duplicate films. We are also exploring the possibility of providing additional digital content to these cinema complexes, including sports events and other live broadcasts," says Hideto Usa, manager of JSAT’s corporate communications and investor relations department.

      According to Megumi Nagashima at SCC’s corporate planning department, SCC is studying the distribution business of digital cinema. "We are searching for a business model, while taking digital standardization in the United States and the reduction of the required digital hardware into consideration," says Nagashima. "The copyright problem of digital content is preventing or slowing the widespread deployment of microcinemas or e-cinema at this time."

      SCC plans to use its Superbird-powered satellite backbone for its content delivery network (CDN) services and to expand upon its current offerings, which include both HitPops, a portal site and "i-HITS" (Headend In The Sky), a digitalization and statistical multiplexing operation that distributes movies, animation, live-sports, broadcasting and other digital content throughout Japan.

      China is by far one of the largest potential markets for this service. "China has 1,243 active digital cinema quality screens, along with 3,000 16mm to 4,000 16mm projector sites. With China Film Group Corp., Boeing Digital Cinema is addressing this market," says Stirling. "We are now up to 33 digital cinema systems using DVD-delivered distribution and Barco and Christie Digital Systems projectors. The Chinese want satellite delivery, and they want to reach a total of 100 digital cinemas in operation by the end of this year."

      Almost There With Fingers Crossed

      While politics and not technology will ultimately dictate what happens with respect to digital cinema, there is a growing sense of optimism. The role for the satellite industry in this instance with its point-to-multipoint advantage is obvious.

      There are unique requirements, however, in the mix which may warrant further attention. For example, what if the studios decide to ship multiple 100 GB movies on a single night? While these digital files may actually total out at 100 GB with five percent FEC on each file, the scale of this transfer to multiple cineplexes will use up quite a bit of capacity in the process.

      And each and every feed has to be pristine. More than 90 percent of the problem in any one-way delivery of immense files at high speed is rain attenuation, and fortunately the satellite industry has well-known software-based tools such as Kencast Fazzt that can help to solve this problem .

      "The studios and the theaters may want to wait and see the prior week’s box office results, and then adjust schedules and move content rapidly in response to those numbers," says one industry executive who prefers not to be identified, and whose company has its software installed as part of several e-cinema ventures and trials. "Satellite transponders in their current configuration are much too slow, despite the multipoint delivery advantage. Whereas digital file transfers over fiber at 400 Mbs are feasible, satellite operators may employ inverse multiplexing to uplink a 120 Mbs feed via three transponders simultaneously.

      "You cannot have a single bit wrong, or you cannot decrypt it. The challenge is to validate the whole file. Remember, we are talking perfection here. This is all about the infallible delivery of gigantic files at extremely high speeds," he adds.

      Still in its early stages, the curtain is finally going up on d-cinema and e-cinema, and satellite companies are gearing up to become major players. V

      Digital Cinema: Small Theater Operators On The Fence

      Digital cinema proponents may need to fine tune their message, and reach out with a more compelling solution for small theater operators in the United States in particular. We come to this conclusion after talking to one small theater operator who views any potential migration to d-cinema with little enthusiasm.

      "They are asking a lot from us," says this entrepreneur who declined to be identified. "I have equipment here that works just fine. Why invest another $150,000 when I can still get the movies that my customers want in 35 mm? They will never get out of 35mm prints."

      He sees this mode of distribution as saving the studios millions and millions of dollars, but the fact that 35mm is so firmly established complicates the situation greatly.

      "There is no incentive and no advantage to me whatsoever to change out. The equipment is just too expensive. I will never make up the $150,000 that I will have to spend," he says. "There has to be a cost-sharing program to make this happen. Otherwise, I see this as all aimed at the major chains."

      Finally, he says the fight over the digital cinema format is still going on. He reminds readers that, for example, a single standard digital sound does not exist, and the fact that theater operators have come to accept no fewer than four digital sound formats does not bode well for the resolution of this matter.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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