There are lots of questions surrounding next generation cinema, the one least discussed is how to pay for it. With laser projectors selling at sky-high prices, immersive sound systems costing several times that of a regular projector, and exhibitors leveraged to the hilt, financing new cinema technology purchases is becoming more challenging. To manage this properly, exhibitors need strong guidance as to what to buy. Banks need to know that their money is going into equipment that helps their customers generate box office. And manufacturers need to know what to produce to drive sales. All of which requires a better process for setting quality standards than that which exists today.
Technology development for cinema has several drivers. Manufacturers innovate. Filmmakers innovate. But committees, not so much. While many of the standards created for interoperable distribution in digital cinema were created in standards committees, that will be the least likely source of innovation in the future. Mechanisms that worked over the past 10 years will no longer be as functional. In their place will rise the much older process of manufacturer-driven innovation, and the market confusion this can bring.
Market confusion can have many sources, DCI being one of them. One can recall the confusion over Multiple Media Blocks created by DCI. In September of 2014, DCI issued changes to its specification requiring specific security features and behaviors when outboard media blocks are used, such as Dolby’s CP850, which contains a secure outboard media block for the decryption and playback of Atmos audio tracks. Dolby formally notified DCI of its development work in 2013, as can be seen here, courtesy of Wikileaks. By the time DCI announced that it didn’t like Dolby’s manner of handling security keys in Atmos and that it wanted Dolby to change its design – a decision that was not announced until the release of the revised specification in September 2014 – Dolby already had several hundred systems in the field.
Clumsy acts such as this can sometimes be hard to avoid. But such disconnects between decision makers and the investments their decisions affect are costly and unnecessary. Ultimately, a decision management process is needed.
Projector manufacturers have been concerned that a similar fate could happen to them. Having introduced laser projectors with native color gamuts larger than P3, there was significant concern earlier this year that DCI would issue an edict concerning primary selection that would force them to modify their products, incurring significant R&D costs. Fortunately, this seems unlikely to happen. In this case, better education and communication should cause appropriate decisions to be made.
However easy it may be to pick on them, DCI is not the root of all evil in cinema – real or imagined. In the absence of quality standards and product evaluations, the 3D market has seen a flood of cheap devices emerge. The US market is not as much affected as is the rest of the world. But presented with demonstrations that are designed to look OK, exhibitors are encouraged to buy. They are not equipped to run a product through the mill to uncover hidden flaws. They may only have time to listen to what they are told. The result can be poor investments made, which underscores the need for quality guidance.
Banks cannot be left out of this. If there was one thing learned during the days of virtual print fee financing, it was that the cinema industry is a niche that banks have little understanding of. If a bank learns after the fact that money was loaned against equipment of poor quality, it could raise the rate of future financing driven by the apparent increase in risk. Equipment purchased with a trusted “Good Housekeeping” stamp of approval can lower the cost of capital and make for an easier decision by the bank. It almost makes one nostalgic for the old days of THX…almost.
When it comes to managing quality, there is no one entity that stands out. DCI can barely manage itself, let alone function as a quality approval service. DCI compliance is a step in the right direction, but its not geared to even guarantee SMPTE DCP interoperability, let alone the quality of sound system. Besides, the industry expectation that studios are the purveyors of technology quality is misplaced. DCI’s attorney can surely attest to that. Any effort by a studio that can be construed as restraint of trade will be avoided. Perhaps this should be called Michael’s law. When properly understood, it explains why studios took a year to decide and communicate to Dolby that they didn’t like the security key management in Atmos. (Because they wanted to announce it through the formality of a public change in the DCI spec – which took a long time to pull together.) It explains why studios jump on bandwagons such as laser illumination, hoping that others will solve the quality issues that they cannot.
It’s clear that an arbiter of quality is needed in the cinema market. It not only will help exhibitors make better decisions, but it will help banks make better decisions, too. It’s also clear that the arbiter cannot be the studios – it’s simply not their job. So a gap exists, a gap where Mr. Lucas once stepped in to fill, in a galaxy far away. Hopefully we won’t have to look as far for the next player in the quality assurance game.