Following the end of the boom for digital projection sales, this publication predicted a rise in software-based tools to more efficiently manage the lot. The small array of software-based Theater Management Systems, originally devised to manage VPFs more than cinemas, seemed ripe for improvement. Security key management is another area where improvement was predicted. Certainly there must be better way to manage KDMs than to call to make sure the equipment is right, and then emailing them. The lack of significant progress in either of these areas inspires some digging.
Some of the reason for the lack of efficient key management, at least in early days, can be attributed to a weak understanding of security among studio distribution executives. When digital cinema was introduced, more than one studio insisted that KDMs be transmitted over telecom modems, as it was felt this was the only way to keep the keys secure. The fact that the KDM is encrypted and can be placed on Facebook with no undue consequences was difficult to absorb.
Rather than improve the areas that were new and clumsy, distributors found it more intriguing to pursue satellite delivery of the DCP. The business of shipping movies, versus managing keys, is more easily understood. Satellite technology provides efficient one-to-many distribution, and the US market enables the application of satellite delivery to over 30,000 screens. But satellite delivery hasn’t turned out to be as visionary as promised. Transmission times can require 1/2 day, or longer. Long transmission times incur errors, reducing efficiency. And if creative forces have their way, higher compressed bit rates will lead to even longer transmission times and more errors. With less transmission time available, less movies will be able to ship via satellite. The problem only grows worse with time, not better. Network infrastructure, on the other hand, is incentivized to continually improve. A client once suggested a purpose-built torrent network for delivery of such large files, a practical thought. Such networks can be very fast, while also having a built-in mechanism to automatically fix point-to-point transmission errors. But if encrypted keys required telephone lines to be secure, then I needn’t explain the response to a torrent network for first release movies.
Security key management also struggles along. Massive numbers of keys continue to be emailed each week. Call centers thrive on the receipt of calls complaining about wrong KDMs. Improvements have been made to reduce the labor required, but the process remains inherently unchanged. More efficient processes have been proposed, but such processes tend to be more disruptive than supportive of current business operations, and so meet resistance. Inefficiency can be profitable for incumbent service providers, who can charge for it. To be effective, streamliners have to be disruptive, and those willing to disrupt haven’t been standing in line. But that could now be changing.
The turning point for disrupters may have come about this year. The future of satellite delivery may be fairly questioned, but it’s thriving today, and led to the joint-venturing of two historic rivals in worldwide film distribution: Technicolor and Deluxe. Monopolies are not loved, and the new JV, creatively named Deluxe Technicolor Digital Cinema, will open the door to new competition. To be efficient and attractive, new competition must also be disruptive. It must be able to deliver content at cheaper prices, and it must manage the generation of KDMS, including the management of trusted device lists (TDLs), very efficiently. To do so requires the automated collection of data from sites, replacing the phone banks that now support this process. It also requires network delivery of KDMs that find their way to the correct media block, returning the message that the movie has its keys. Again eliminating the phone banks waiting to hear that the wrong KDM was sent.
In a similar fashion, it’s time for the TMS to go mobile and into the cloud data center. It should be easy for cinema operators to see the status of their sites on mobile devices, regardless of where they may be. Scheduling needs to be smarter, marrying preshow and trailer playlists with the movie title, however clumsily entered in the point-of-sale system, while selecting the right DCP. The complex data identifiers of DCPs and KDMs should not need to be visible to humans for digital cinema to work properly. To get there may also require a disrupter, ready and willing to move incumbents aside by offering smarter, cheaper software. That day is most likely to come as VPF contracts expire, freeing many exhibitors to seek lower cost, and more efficient, alternatives.
2016 may witness the launching of such disruptive endeavors. At the very least, it is likely to witness the foundational work that will enable the next generation of software that streamlines distribution and exhibition workflows.