Nine years ago, when only a few hundred digital cinema screens were installed, an agreement was made between a small number of companies, some of whom are no longer in business, to employ draft SMPTE standards for digital cinema packaging. The format was called Interop, and the intent was to switch to the standardized version, once it existed. 90,000 screens later, we still talk about switching from Interop DCP to SMPTE DCP.
The exercise to make the switch occupies a lot of minds these days, and one wonders why. The security of the content is the same. The only feature that differs is how audio is handled. The SMPTE approach to audio, however, is not backwards compatible with many older installed servers, as it requires that the media block route audio signals, a feature that became widely available in products only in recent years. In addition, SMPTE further complicated the standard in recent years by introducing a new channel-by-channel labeling scheme, which very few, if any, products support. Audio is particularly a problem for SMPTE DCP because DCI chose to not test whether or not the standardized mechanisms work in the DCI Compliance Test Plan. (This is because the DCI specification is incorrect in regards to SMPTE standards for audio.) So even if a product is DCI Compliant, it may not correctly play the audio in your SMPTE DCP.
It will be a long time until a studio can confidently release a blockbuster movie in the SMPTE DCP format and expect it to play on every system installed. To do this, some percentage of equipment will need to be replaced. Projector replacements may not begin in significant numbers until 2020, but media blocks could be replaced before that. The problem is getting to 100% certainty. There is 100% certainly today that an Interop DCP will play correctly on all 90,000 digital cinema screens currently installed. It could take as long as 10 years to achieve 100% certainty with SMPTE DCP.
Eventually, SMPTE DCP will be put to work, if for no other reason than pride over the standard. But can SMPTE DCP survive for so long as the only standard? The authoritative documentation for Interop DCP sits on a privately owned FTP site, for which one has to go to the owner to get the password. 90,000 screens around the world now rely on the specification stored on this FTP site. The problem becomes even more awkward when considering how archivists around the world will attempt to recreate players for digital cinema content produced in the last decade. To address this, this author recently proposed that Interop DCP documents be published by SMPTE as a less formal form of public document called Registered Disclosure Documents (RDDs). One can’t expect results overnight. But at the recent Technology Summit on Cinema at NAB, the vice president of SMPTE publicly proclaimed to a manager in the US Library of Congress, the national archivist for published works, that all digital cinema content could be retrieved using SMPTE standards. This wasn’t in reference to possible Interop RDDs. Another blooper occurred at the recent Inter-Society meeting held at CinemaCon, where the chair of the ISDCF committee proclaimed that we would achieve full SMPTE DCP compatibility in a matter of weeks. Such disconnects take a long time to overcome.