The major studios, as kingpins of the industry, must always be on guard as litigative targets. One has only to look at a sixty page digital cinema deployment agreement to get a sense of how careful they are. So it’s surprising to hear reports of less care taken in regards to DCI compliance testing.
To date, all digital cinema projectors, including those from Barco, Christie, NEC, and Sony Electronics, have passed compliance testing. In addition, four media block/servers have passed: two from Doremi, and two from Sony. Some studios have published deadlines to keep the pressure up on those manufacturers whose products have yet to pass. Sony Pictures first issued a deadline of June 30, 2011, after which non-compliant products could not be installed. Showing some pragmatism, the date was moved to September 30, 2011. Paramount recently announced a deadline of December 7, 2011 to upgrade equipment in the field to compliant systems, else Paramount movies won’t play on them.
Pressure such as this can impact sales of new equipment. While all server and IMB manufacturers have products in queue, there has long been a backlog in DCI compliance testing. Doremi, for instance, was certain of their server passing the Compliance Test Plan (CTP) last Fall, and didn’t actually pass until June of this year. Part of the problem is that not everyone agreed with the testing procedure. Cinecert, the author of the DCI Compliance Test Plan (CTP), says that in some cases they have found reason to correct some tests.
Corrected tests result in changed tests, and some companies, facing considerable market pressure, now claim that recent changes have caused their products to fail sections of the CTP that they previously passed. Generally, the testing process begins by hiring a consultant – a service offered by a testing authority such as Cinecert or Keio University – to review the product and advise on changes needed to pass the CTP. Although hiring the testing authority, the consultancy service is not considered part of the testing phase, and so DCI says this falls outside of the testing window, where DCI written policy says that products that once pass a section of the CTP will continue to pass that section of the CTP, regardless of changes. (This policy is also conflicted by the re-testing policy that DCI has announced.)
DCI’s policy, however, is flawed. If the CTP is changed, it requires that a product newly under test to have behaviors that existing “compliant” products do not. For a manufacturer, these changes add considerable cost to the consulting/testing effort, and could also cost the manufacturer real sales as nervous customers ditch their products for those that passed. DCI does not warrant its CTP, but is responsible for changes. That such changes may cause out-of-pocket expenses to occur for manufacturers should flag concern. But to cause a manufacturer to lose sales as a result of such changes could become cause for legal action. DCI, and those studios with deadlines, may want to rethink their policies.
DCI has other murky waters to wade through, as well. The recent push for higher frame rates for 3-D will likely result in compression bit rates that are higher than the minimum 250 Mb/s prescribed by DCI. This would mean that a DCI-compliant media block, even if software modified to support higher frame rates, will not necessarily playback higher frame content if using a higher bit rate. This is because compression bit rates are limited by the speed of hardware, not by software. Even though the new IMB designs support up to 500 Mb/s bit rates, it may turn out that this is not enough, and that an authority is needed to specify a higher bit rate.
But as an authority, DCI is caught in a corner with bit rates. It cannot modify the performance factors for media blocks in its specification without instigating a clause in the deployment agreements of its member studios that cause them to pay for DCI spec-related upgrades. Interestingly, this doesn’t appear to be reason for DCI members to back away from changing the spec. Privately, a few members have hinted that they would consider it. Perhaps they haven’t met with their attorneys yet.
If so, the DCI specification, and its CTP, could become less important over time. A likely outcome is that the DCI specification, in terms of marketplace significance, be limited to content security.