In terms of business operations, the shift to digital distribution has been much better handled by studios than exhibitors. Studios, having already embraced digital content preparation and distribution architectures for consumer content, welcome the opportunity to bring first release movies into this fold.
Exhibitors, on the other hand, are not in the content distribution business. They are less keen to replace their low-cost-of-ownership film systems with digital ones. The concept of introducing a technology refresh cycle into their business scares them as it’s not built in to their model. The hope is that they can buy their systems using studio subsidies, and stretch the utility of these systems for as long as possible.
When it comes to longevity, the device to be most picky about is the projector. With the most robust technology arguably being that of Texas Instruments, the projector buy decision should be a no-brainer. In fact, this is why there is now a demand for 4K-compatible TI projectors. It’s not that exhibitors want to buy 4K upgrades today. It’s that they may want to buy them tomorrow, 5 years, or possibly even further down the road.
The choice of server technology is more complicated. Digital cinema servers are not expected to last more than 5 years, if that. Digital cinema server companies, therefore, want to lock in their customers so they come back when it’s time to buy more. Most companies attempt to do so through their software. This is why server companies today offer their own Theatre Management Systems (TMS), for example.
Digital cinema servers are really purpose-built IT equipment. The most unique element in them is the media block. Take out the media block, and you have a box that can be purchased from a major computer supplier such as Dell for a lot less money. Not all server companies would agree, however. After all, if you’re in the box selling business, why would you tell your customers they can get away with a box from Dell?
But if there’s a point to be made by the digital cinema server companies wishing to preserve business, then the facts behind the Screen Management System (SMS) and the media block are worth investigating.
DCI envisioned, in fact, clearly states its preference, that the media block go in the projector, and that the SMS not be part of it. The SMS was envisioned as software operating outside the media block. Accordingly, DCI defined the division of roles between SMS and media block in its spec. The SMS, for example, must know when the media block has been changed. (That’s not a useful role to have if the SMS is part of the media block itself.)
But the SMS has a security role, which can make this confusing to equipment buyers. The security role is limited to the establishment of secure communications between itself and the Security Manager element of the media block. A DCI-compliant digital cinema certificate is required to establish these communications, and to identify the SMS to the media block. So that the digital certificate can be hardware independent, the DCI spec allows it to be supplied by a “dongle.” Digital cinema not being the only application to require such devices, such “dongles” can be found off-the-shelf, requiring only a USB port. This is a forward-looking concept, as it allows the exhibitor to replace the “Dell” box without requiring new registration of hardware.
With the media block now able to be installed in the projector, a huge shift is afoot. Exhibitors may not see this in real product for several years yet, but certainly by the time digital cinema servers are ready to be replaced, the “buy Dell” option will exist. Hardware-independent software providing the SMS function will exist. Exhibitors will become familiar with makes such as AJA, well-known in the video world, but currently tucked away out-of-view in digital cinema servers from GDC, Qube, and Digicine. So when a server company says that the “buy Dell” option will never exist, you’ll know what to say.