Prior to the introduction of digital cinema, there were few standards that guided cinema. Standards, and the DCI specification in particular, emerged to reduce risk of investment in the digital transition. But it would be mistaken to think that standards continue to rule the industry. DCI retains its strength, largely due to its highly valued compliance testing program. However, standards without economic backing or commercial benefit find adoption difficult. The classic examples are SMPTE DCP, now in its seventh year of painfully slow adoption, and immersive sound, where a standards committee is now inventing a new sound format that no commercial entity has pledged to invest in.
Uniformity is another area where cinema historically is lacking. The digital transition drove uniformity of technology in the cinema footprint, thanks to DCI, the virtual print fee funding mechanism, and the domination of key technologies, which dictated a high degree of uniformity of parameters that determine image quality. But uniformity and innovation don’t go hand-in-hand without a strong economic mechanism. When talking about new innovations such as high dynamic range (HDR) and immersive sound, there must be recognition that these technologies are without an economic mechanism to drive uniform adoption.
Efficiency in the supply chain is a consideration, but not a driver for uniformity. The supply chain adjusts to sales, not efficiency. As an example, IMAX and Dolby Cinema represent around 2% of the worldwide cinema footprint, but warrant unique inventory in terms of content. Efficiency has more standards-setting power when volumes are high. But will volumes ever be high with innovative cinema? Will all cinemas have immersive sound, or will it largely be limited to opening screens? Likewise, will all cinemas convert to HDR when available on a commercial basis, or will HDR also have a limited footprint?
Across the industry, the cinema footprint is more likely to have a large number of “DCI” screens, with 5.1 or 7.1 sound, minimum P3 color space, peak white of 14 ft-L, and under 2000:1 contrast. As innovations are introduced, it’s unlikely that every innovative format will be wildly successful, winning large footprints that complicate future distribution. It’s more likely that one, possibly two, forms of an innovative feature will prevail. In the relatively small cinema industry, market forces are a healthier and legally preferred mechanism for determining winners and losers than standards committees.
There are numerous organizations today that would like to insert themselves in the evaluation process of new technologies. AMPAS, ASC, DCI, SMPTE are all candidates. Evaluations are useful. They provide the means for industry professionals to give valuable feedback to technology providers. But if evaluations are declared to be the basis for standards setting, beware. Technology providers need breathing room to invest, learn, and innovate. Who’s to tell which innovations will enjoy the greatest success? Let’s let innovation blossom, unimpeded by new standards. The cinema experience will be much better off for it.