The warnings that the industry was turning its back to a major problem were first heard before the DCI spec reached version 1.0 in mid-2005. To this day, security key management continues to be the top hit of the complaint list. This, even though some excellent solutions exist. Why does the industry continue to suffer? Because digital cinema is hard. Much harder than anyone was willing to believe when this effort began 12 years ago. It’s instructive to review why.
Perhaps the most important item of note is that the industry has changed. Twelve years ago, digital cinema held the promise of opportunity for a lot of companies. The technology was only then being defined, giving everyone an equal start from the gate. Companies were eager to collaborate, as no one had enough information to be first to market. As a result, lots of companies entered the race, pooling lots of engineering talent into solving problems.
Fast forward to today, and there are fewer players in the game. Not all of the early players scored sales, and either folded operations or moved on to other opportunities. Those still in the game are not eager to invest in further R&D. Products are selling, and no one gets a bonus for tinkering with them. Not to mention the pending sales cliff (see last month’s report).
It’s worth saying again: digital cinema is hard. It has a lot of moving parts. Just as discovery of the Higgs boson will lead scientists to stare at yet deeper levels of the atomic onion, digital cinema has its own layers of problems to deal with. These layers are caused by multiple factors:
- DCI’s limited specification
- SMPTE’s limited universe of standards
- Limited reach of manufacturers
- Limited access to product in the field
- Limited size of the cinema market, which caps the resources for further effort
DCI set the stage for minimal equipment functionality with the release of its specification in 2005. Most of the original specification has evolved to simply reference SMPTE standards. Where DCI augments SMPTE is in its specification of security behavior. But SMPTE standards don’t fully define the minimum equipment requirements from an operational perspective. DCI has gaps in its specification to fill, but whether or not it has the will to do so remains to be seen. It’s a shame, as DCI’s specification is a major driver for causing manufacturers to implement common solutions.
Rather than spend time on new features such as HFR, studios would be smarter to invest their joint efforts through DCI on strengthening the infrastructure of digital cinema, particularly security key management. But one of DCI’s biggest challenges is that it is no longer the entity that it once was. DCI once had an independent management team that could guide the direction of the organization. Today it is little more than a specification maintenance group, through which periodic conference calls take place among studio members. There are no longer independent champions in DCI. Independent leaders would also provide the vehicle for addressing tough issues with exhibitors, such as certificate revocation lists. While some point to Movie Labs as DCI’s new champion, Movie Labs has a long way to go before it can become a credible face to exhibitors.
SMPTE standards are also a major factor in causing manufacturers to implement common solutions. The fast adoption of accessibility standards, which have no reference of any kind in the DCI specification, demonstrate the power of SMPTE standardization. There are several motivators at work. Small manufacturers want to demonstrate that their products are state-of-the-art by keeping up with the standardization curve. Less obvious is that public companies are highly motivated to implement standards. Public companies have shareholders to report to, who may not understand the meaning of a standard, but they understand the competitive value of standards compliance. Public companies also have to be concerned about litigation, where non-compliance with evolving standards could be claimed as cause for a loss of revenue somewhere in the movie food chain. Off the top, the standards missing today are those that allow a system to collect security certificates from equipment and transmit them to KDM makers, and those that insure that the right KDM arrives at the projection system.
It is hard to expect more out of manufacturers. DCI and SMPTE may create specifications and standards, and it is the role of manufacturers to not only build compliant products, but to sell, install, and support them throughout the product lifetime. Manufacturers get involved in solving problems when it directly benefits sales. For example, Doremi was first to develop a stereoscopic playback method, and Dolby led development of the protocol used by closed caption systems. Further, each company worked to create standards in these areas. But security key management crosses many boundaries, and there’s no benefit for manufacturers to champion a solution. Manufacturers will follow, but the solution has to be championed by others.
Even if manufacturers implement a new common solution, they have little ability to insure its installation in all sites. Once equipment is engaged in production work, it takes a lot of incentive to cause cinema owners to allow changes to be made. Simple upgrades can affect how a product behaves with other equipment and systems. More capable cinema owners will sandbox changes to evaluate such interactions over time. Less capable cinema owners may simply wait until more incentivized. Some manufacturers have a policy of charging to upgrade, which only raises the bar that incentives must meet.
One of the biggest plagues of digital cinema is the smallness of the market. A projected maximum market of 120,000 screens doesn’t induce the kind of technology development effort that a smart phone will get. Digital cinema benefits from the use of off-the-shelf technology wherever possible. It is this kind of thinking that encouraged the development of projectors with integrated media blocks using “off-the-shelf” servers. It is also this kind of thinking that led to security key management solutions championed by Fox, which make use of readily available protocols.
None of these layers of issues are easy problems to solve. But by far the most effective step forward would be for a re-invigorated DCI to hire a team of managers to work closely within its ranks and to lead difficult negotiations with exhibitors in the effort to streamline security key management.