Fifteen years ago, the industry was concerned that emerging digital projection meet the quality level possible with film. Digital cameras could not capture an image close to the quality possible with film. Fast forward to today, and it’s not hard to find experts that say projection technology has further to go to match film. And there are those that still prefer to shoot on film. But overall, the capability of today’s motion picture cameras and image processing exceeds that of cinema projection technology. And that’s a problem that will not resolve anytime soon.
The problem appears in several ways:
- DCI and the virtual print fee bought a uniform footprint of cinema technology around the world. But the direction of next generation cinema is moving well beyond DCI, and the cinema footprint can no longer be uniform, introducing unanticipated inefficiencies.
- Multiple DCP versions cannot be avoided. “Jurassic World” required over 300 different DCPs to accommodate all of the variations in cinemas across the globe. Each new technology is cause to an exponential growth in versions, which could lead to over 1000 different DCPs per major release by the end of the decade.
- There is no longer a body that can enforce standards. Ten years ago, the major studios had unprecedented power through DCI to set standards, paid for through virtual print fee (VPF) subsidies. But those days are now gone.
- Manufacturers are uncertain as to where to invest. The recent wave of investment in RGB laser projectors, for example, hasn’t led to a wave of new revenue. To a certain extent, manufacturers today tend to either follow each other, or simply take a wild shot (consider Barco’s Escape), without guidance as to where new technology will and will not create value.
Industry guidelines would help, even if enforcement is not possible. Organizing an effort to develop industry guidelines is challenging but not daunting. Getting funding to make it happen, however, can be difficult. It’s not as if no one would like for it to happen. But economics is making such steps hard to take, for several reasons.
Among those reasons are the inefficiencies caused by multiple DCPs. There’s an inherent conflict for studios in funding an effort to establish guidelines that could lead to an exponential growth in DCP’s per major release. But there is also the lack of readiness of exhibition to absorb new technologies that must be considered. Without the luxury of VPF subsidies, new equipment purchases must be carried 100% by exhibitors. Given that subsidies tend to keep prices high, one would expect projection equipment minus subsidies to drop in price. That would favor new technologies that make it cheaper to build a projector, or cheaper to operate a projector. But when keeping up with the filmmaker interest in higher dynamic range, higher frame rates, wider color space, and higher compressed bit rates, it’s difficult to conceive that such technologies will lead to more affordable equipment that can be carried 100% by exhibitors. Studios are not willing to undertake another round of equipment subsidies. The last signal they want to put out is that cinemas need to upgrade capabilities.
Industry guidelines would help manufacturers, too. Ultimately, manufacturers must provide value to exhibitors. But to what extent will higher dynamic range, higher frame rates, wider color space, and higher compressed bit rates produce images that are highly valued by the audience? R&D funding must be managed, and industry guidance as to where R&D funds are best spent is needed.
2016 could be the turning point for determining how the industry will manage new technologies in the cinema. Either an effort will be made to engage the creative community in establishing meaningful guidelines, or industry technology will be driven ad hoc by the creative whims of major directors, with all of the inefficiencies that such a path is likely to produce.