It may sound silly to talk about e-cinema vs d-cinema. E-cinema, or “electronic cinema,” is an old term generally applied to non-DCI digital cinema. The thrust and strength of the digital cinema would seem to have made e-cinema old hat. But there remain emerging markets where DCI digital cinema is not yet affordable. These markets deserve attention.
While DCI is associated with Hollywood, the format is better viewed through the lens of release windows. When the format was created, image quality and security were the drivers. Digital formats of the day were limited in quality. Home entertainment technology could only support 1080P resolution and the Rec 709 color space. Looking back, 1080P and Rec 709 are clearly the past, while Ultra HD’s 4K and Rec 2020 color space is now the future of home entertainment. In perspective, Ultra HD 4K is driven by DCI 4K, and the Rec 2020 wider color space is driven by DCI’s embrace of XYZ color representation that includes the entire range of human vision. But resolution and color do not drive business models. Security does.
The motion picture business thrives on multiple release windows, where movies are first sold in the theatrical window, and then sold again in the home entertainment market. There is some simplification in that description, as other windows also exist for airline and hotel entertainment. The motion picture industry is perhaps the only industry remaining that successfully resells its products to consumers multiple times at different price points. The closest model that comes to mind is that of the classic book industry, where books were first released in hard back form at a high price, and later in paperback at a lower price. The book industry model was disintermediated by e-books, which has largely flattened the book release model to that of an ordinary consumable. Without control over distribution and the manner in which the movie is consumed, the movie industry could go the same way as books.
The ticket for control is security. Without strong security, multiple release windows for movies would not be possible. DCI security is very strong, designed with the intention to preserve the first release window for motion pictures. However, this also comes at a certain cost, and that cost is not supportable in all markets. In such markets, regional content producers generally thrive. The story that can be missed is that what is good for Hollywood is also good for other content producers.
The push-back is that e-cinema don’t necessarily mean that content must be placed in the open. There exists a cut of e-cinema products that go above Blu ray and which provide for secure distribution. The playback devices are not bulletproof to the extent that DCI-compliant products are, but they do offer the high degree of protection at the file format level that is possible with DCI. Where that protection can fall short is inside the player itself, and in the home entertainment HDMI/HDCP link between player and projector, which can be hacked. If there is a need for less-than-DCI but better-than-Blu ray, then e-cinema products from a company such as Qube Cinema are recommended. (Qube Cinema is not a client. I have no promotional intent in naming them.)
This invites investigation from another angle: if it’s good for other content owners, can it also be good for Hollywood? I.e., can Hollywood afford to let up a bit on DCI and release movies into the e-cinema world? Universal Studios took this gamble with its e-cinema release of “Fast & Furious 7” in India, mid 2015. Universal’s move was controversial in that it wasn’t supportive of those cinemas that invested in DCI-compliant equipment. “Fast & Furious 7” was also notable for its massive number of pirated downloads, particularly in India. But no evidence has been published that ties piracy of the movie to the high quality copies that would have resulted from breaking the limited security measures of e-cinema. It appears that pirates prefer low skill camcorder piracy to highly skilled hacking.
Such indicators might support an argument that DCI security is over the top. But no one can be faulted for high security. The risk in allowing a first release motion picture footprint that can be compromised, regardless of the skill required, is simply too great. Wide investment in less security would be very hard to reverse, and could severely damage the motion picture industry and its multiple release window model.
This is the argument for DCI security. While DCI’s quality levels may be under strain, its commitment to content security is unequaled. E-cinema has its place today in markets where DCI is simply unaffordable on a wide scale. But these same markets support emerging content producers, who will eventually benefit from the greater security offered by DCI. Their potential for growth should not be overlooked when selecting the playback format for a cinema.