The i-Cinema Standard

At the 2009 Sundance Institute pre-festival Arthouse Convergence Emerging Pictures was asked to present an update on our Digital Cinema Network designed specifically for cultural centers, Emerging Cinemas. The following “think piece” was distributed to over seventy venues in attendance. While some projector models have changed it still accurately reflects what we’ve built and why.

The i-Cinema Standard

Art house cinemas would clearly benefit from a different digital cinema standard than mainstream Hollywood studio films and commercial multiplex exhibitors do. The Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) standard is indeed technically very impressive but far too expensive and cumbersome for most specialty film venues. Consequently, there are very few DCI equipped art house cinemas operating today in the U.S., and little if any appropriate content.

It is extremely important that a cost effective yet high quality system be developed, and accepted, by the specialty film community – distributors, exhibitors, content owners – or independent and international film runs the risk of actually losing ground rather than benefiting from the ongoing transition between traditional analog film to digital distribution and exhibition.

Over the past four years Emerging Pictures has deployed a system we call i-Cinema, – the ‘i’ standing for International and Independent Film – that distinguishes itself from the unabashedly Hollywood-centric DCI D-cinema standard the studios have established for themselves. To date, over sixty five theatrical venues – both commercial and not-for-profit art houses are equipped with i-Cinema systems for the electronic distribution and projection of art house films and “alternate content” – the catch all phrase for non-film oriented materials projected digitally in a true theatrical setting, such as operas, dance, pop music events, digital book tours, lectures, and other offerings.

The i-Cinema system is based on four key components:
Content, connectivity, servers, projectors

Content: what gets on the screen.

Specialty Film – American and International narrative and non-fiction features supplied by virtually every independent theatrical distributor.

Alternate Content –Everything from operas to dance to high profile concerts and sporting events can be either delivered LIVE, via satellite, or prerecorded and played off of our HD quality servers using a “store forward” approach. Although it is clear that “live” events have an additional cachet (and can command higher ticket prices), we have found that taped events can draw just as well, and have the added benefit of programming flexibility that takes into account local time zones.

Thematic mini-festivals and series – Films that are of more limited commerciality can be offered by grouping them together into thematic strands. Emerging had already offered series curated by some of the most prestigious film organizations in the country, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Film Society of Lincoln Center and indieWIRE. More of these series are in the works.

Reissues – The fire at Universal Studios recently underlined the fragile nature of the availability of 35mm prints of classic films. Emerging is working with the major studios and independents to make their libraries available in high definition digital format. Rather than waiting in line for a print, that may end up being of dubious quality, these libraries will become more accessible on a more affordable basis.
Program masters for digital distribution are sourced from authorized distributors, producers, sales agents, or other rights holders using the best possible quality digital master available. Ideally materials are supplied in a true HD format – HDCAM, HDCAM SR, HD D5 – or in the best quality anamorphic widescreen standard definition version (16:9 aspect ratio native DigiBeta – neither letterboxed, nor trans-coded PAL>NTSC/NTSC>PAL). We usually reject older format analogue tapes – Beta SP copies – as they are generally of insufficient quality to stand up to the rigors of large screen projection. All standard def materials are critically up converted to 720p resolution before encoding.

The masters are next encoded into digital files. Formats currently used are VC-1 (Windows Media HD), AVC.264, or MPEG2 HD file formats. A 90 min HD feature is compressed into a 10-12-gig file using VC-1. Bit rates of encoding is usually 12-18 mbps in VC1 or .264; 25-45 mbps in MPEG2 HD. HD quality files are made in 720p (1280×720 pixel) arrays. In DCI’s JP2000 format the same 90 min HD master would yield a 200-250 gig file, which is why Hollywood still ships hard drives via courier services, not unlike traditional 35mm film can deliveries.

Connectivity: how to reach the screen

A digital data network has been assembled that allows the completed files to be sent over dedicated broadband lines from a data farm to the individual venues on the network. The local venue leases a dedicated data line (Static IP address) of a minimum of 6 MBPS capacity. Average price is $65-80 per month from a local cable company. If the venue currently has such a line an additional static IP “drop” can often be added for as little as $20 per month. The cable modem is placed close to the projection booth or equipment rack of the projection system.

Servers: where the film files reside

A digital cinema server is basically a purposely-built computer with a large hard drive (250-500 gigs) for storing the individual files that make up trailers, advertising, and feature presentations. It has a proprietary Theatre Management Software (TMS) package that manages the downloading of files; checks their integrity upon arrival into the server; and allows for external monitoring/tech support during operation via a simple web based interface. More than being just an HD playback device, the i-Cinema server is part and parcel of the entire file delivery system. The TMS also allows for the creation of “play lists” – the sequencing of discreet files residing on the server. Promotions, advertising, and feature presentations that have been digitally delivered over the network can now be sequenced into one complete seamless screening session during playback.

The server has audio (5.1 audio as well as simple digital L/R outputs) and digital (DVI) and analog R,G,B video outputs for feeding the rest of the projection system.

Projectors: getting the program onto the theatrical screen

The most complicated and costly part of any digital cinema system. The goal is simple – to get the best possible picture for your screen, today, without overpaying. Projectors, like any electronic products, can only get better and cheaper over time.

Two key projector imaging technologies are currently in use – LCD and DLP based systems.

LCD projectors are generally less expensive, brighter in light output relative to the dollars spent, but “brasher” in picture quality. Earlier, non native HD units frequently allowed discerning viewers to notice the LCD grid pattern supered over the image content the so-called “screen door” effect. LCD projectors also generally have less black “blacks” and a general loss of contrast. More recent units have been improved yet LCDs are not considered as “filmic” in general viewer response.

Digital Light Processing (DLP) is a “micro mirror” imaging chip made by Texas Instruments for use by many manufacturers – Panasonic, Digital Projection Systems, NEC, SIM2, Sharp, etc. It is acknowledged as being more “cinematic” – and is the technology most widely used by Hollywood’s expensive Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) standard in its 2K format (Sony also makes a non DLP 4K projector that is in far fewer digital cinemas).

DLP projectors are made in two basic forms, three chip and one-chip designs. Three chip DLP projectors – for example a Panasonic 7000 model or the SIM2 720p models – process the red (R) blue (B) and green (G) elements of the composite full color picture by processing the signals separately. They make the most realistic or “filmic” looking pictures and not surprisingly are among the more expensively priced projectors with a higher number of Lumens (light output). Pricing for a 3 chip DLP run from $12,000 to $100,000 though most i-Cinema 3-chip projector installations cost between $15-20,000, including appropriate lens and DVI input card. They can be used on screens 20’-28’ wide in most cases.

There are also one chip “industrial grade” DLP units – a Panasonic 5100 – that utilize one TI micro mirror processor for the light output and shine it through a rapidly spinning “color wheel” that artificially recreates the full colors that a dedicated 3 chip RGB system would do. These cost between $6500 and $8000 (depending on lens required) and can be very respectable on a nominally sized screen– 16’-20’ wide, approximately. However, with the recent introduction of quality 3 chip DLP units from SIM2, Sharp, and continuing success of the Panasonic 7000 units unequivocally ”better” three chip DLPs can now approach the price of a one chip unit. The i-Cinema standard projector of choice remains a 3 chip DLP.

Selecting a system for your venue

From our experience the place to start is to acknowledge upfront the money one has to comfortably spend. DCI compliant equipment – 2K projectors and JP 2000 format servers – are still expensive, not particularly network able (digital “prints” arrives on hard drives via couriers) and has limited, if any, art house content readily available in this format, to date. No hardware, no content. No content, no hardware is the prevailing reality vis a vis DCI and specialty film.

We do not believe in overspending to start a digital cinema program, for either specialty film or alternate content. Of our current 65 sites only one currently has a true DCI compliant projector, fed by an i-Cinema server that is on the network. However, if funding is not an issue, – for both initial purchase and ongoing consumables, such as lamps – a 2K projector can only be considered a plus.

The selection process begins with the screen size in the auditorium and the projection throw distances between booth to screen is the right place to begin. This will establish the “power” – light output – required to make a satisfactory picture on the screens sizes you anticipate using. The goal is to get 15 foot Lamberts on the screen – either digitally or with film projectors. Once you know how much power you’ll need to service the screen you have you can select a suitable projector for your near term needs.

Miscellaneous Things to Remember

You get no “credit” for being “close” to DCI compliant. Either you are, or you are not. If you are not fully 2K/JP2000 compliant you will be denied Hollywood studio fare, in most cases, and this unfortunate edict does, with rare exceptions, reach down to the art house divisions of the majors.

A 3-chip DLP 1080p projector (1920×1080 pixel) is usually twice the expense of a 720p (1280×720 pixel) unit. On a 25’ screen the difference will be unnoticeable. Unless you need the significantly increased light output to service a 35’ plus screen it might very well be technical/financial overkill for you. Politically, a 1080p projector vs. 720p projectors will be regarded as being the same – i.e., non-DCI. Your audio system will be used in much the same way as your film system’s audio processor, amplifiers, speakers are. All audio from a digital cinema server is indeed digital, unless you really want to use analog outputs, for some reason.

Trailers, in true HD quality, can be readily delivered, stored, sequenced, and projected digitally, today. They are exceedingly easier to use than traditional 35mm prints. The Theatre Management Software (TMS) makes play list composition a point and click process, easily changed for specific show times. Many film trailers are readily available in both 720p and 1080p formats off of online sites, with iTunes being the most prominent.

For single screen venues “multiplexing” the programming – playing two, three or more different shows per day – is very easy and fast to do using the play list creation functions of an i-Cinema server.

Because a digital file of a Specialty Film can reside on a server for as long as it can rationally make money for the venue and rights owner there is no need to push for a traditional one week – or weekend – engagement. Many Emerging venues find they can realize unexpected revenues by building an audience through playing a film twice a week, four weeks a month, allowing word of mouth to build, niche audiences/affinity groups to be marketed to. Documentaries tend to play well over these sorts of extended periods.

For venues still being asked for minimum guarantees the digital delivery and exhibition of first run specialty films can eliminate this financial drain. Because a smaller venue with perhaps less screening times per week is no longer tying up a traditional, and expensive, 35mm print distributors have come to realize there is no loss of business opportunity in playing a file during a limited digital run so there’s little if no reason to ask for a fee in advance.

A Networked Digital Cinema is the only truly GREEN Cinema. No petroleum based film prints, no carbon based fuels used by truck and plane couriers, no dumping old prints into landfills or the oceans. Think about it.