In 2019 the first territories will go 100% SMPTE DCP, for major studio releases at least. What will it mean for exhibitors? Danny Jeremiah, head of cinema products at Arts Alliance Media, explores the implications
At the turn of the 20th century, the nascent film industry was trying out all kinds of formats; should they produce a square, rectangular, or even circular image? How could they maximise the use of every inch of film stock, while still reproducing a detailed image? What capabilities did the photography industry have that they could repurpose?
It’s easy to forget that 35mm was once a format that had to be agreed on, and that cinemas can trace their success back to competing camera and projector manufacturers deciding on a single format in the name of compatibility. In many ways, it was probably more challenging to come to a consensus back then — we owe 35mm to a single engineer: W. K. L. Dickson, who cut his Eastman 70mm transparent film in half lengthways to double his stock in 1889.
Today, the professional organisations like the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) streamline the production of standards by bringing technical experts and key figures together at the inception of new technologies, instead of after (as was the case with Mr Dickson). Even still, ratifying standards is notoriously time-consuming, especially when it marks the first major departure from the original set in a hundred years. So, in the interest of enabling a relatively quick rollout, a temporary solution to ensure the compatibility of digital cinema content was devised — a draft of technical documents called the Interoperable Digital Cinema Package, or Interop DCP for short.
The Interop DCP specification set out a way to put together that group of files, and served as a guideline by which equipment manufacturers could start releasing products to market and give exhibitors and studios relative peace of mind that the content they wanted to play would play correctly. As the proposal for what was to become SMPTE DCP, Interop DCP is less fully featured, and relies in some places on conventions instead of standards. That makes it difficult to render certain operations fully machine readable, and therefore fully automated.
It would take years to finalise the official SMPTE DCP standard, eventually published in 2009. Whilst it was based on work done for the Interop specification, it isn’t identical and isn’t supported by some of the oldest equipment in the field, even with a software update. So here we are in 2019, a decade later, and North America is finally on the verge of going full-SMPTE DCP. It has faced some resistance because the industry had only just started converting in earnest when it was released, and many exhibitors were tied into VPF deals for years before they could invest in compatible hardware.
Some exhibitors also noted that the most immediate benefit of widespread SMPTE DCP usage went to the studios. For several years, studios have had to master SMPTE and Interop DCPs for their titles. If they can ditch Interop versions, mastering and distribution costs would decrease.
While that is true, there are also a number of benefits for exhibitors. SMPTE DCPs support key new features, which together present the opportunity to improve the efficiency of exhibitor operations greatly through powerful automations and pave the way for further improvements.
Future-proofing is challenging, but increasingly vital in the digital era, where new technologies could give exhibitors an edge. With hardware, software and processes nimble enough to capitalise on the latest trends as they capture the public’s imagination is a more valuable asset than any single new technology. Proper standards are resilient and flexible, ensure consistency and compatibility and can be upheld without barring innovation. The SMPTE DCP standard is a great step forward in the name of scalability and opportunity.
High Frame Rate (HFR)
SMPTE DCPs enable delivery of HFR playback such as 60 or 120 frames per second. HFR hasn’t found a breakout hit yet, but “Avatar 2” in 2020 might convince audiences and the industry of its merits.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
HDR has been embraced by the television industry faster than by cinemas, which could well prompt audiences to think they get a better picture at home. Adding HDR to cinemas is a step to change that.
The immersive audio format from Dolby creates three-dimensional sound in theatres through proprietary object-based audio placement and the addition of ceiling-mounted speakers. Atmos has now been installed at over 4,500 screens around the world, indicative of the importance next-generation audio solutions are becoming to exhibitors and audiences alike.
Extended CPL Metadata
Content Title Text is an often impenetrable string of numbers, and letters which, if you know what to look for, gives information about a piece of content. In the Content Title Text are details like aspect ratio, audio format and whether it has subtitles. The trouble is that it was designed to be read by humans. It is also a convention, rather than a standard, and, as such, can’t be relied on for accuracy. To achieve a high degree of automation, it must be machine-readable. The software needs to be able to look at a piece of content and know exactly what is in it. This is contained in metadata; literally data-about-data. Interop DCPs do contain useful metadata, but it doesn’t cover everything the software reading it might need, so we fall back on unreliable content-title-text or human intervention. Metadata in SMPTE DCPs makes it easier to search for content, and allows software like the Theatre Management Systems (TMS) to identify and program content automatically. This automation is essential to cinemas looking to grow without adding costs, freeing up site staff to pursue customer-focused initiatives.
Markers are placed at a particular timecode in the composition and can be used to trigger automations such as bringing the houselights up when the credits roll. This info is currently emailed or shipped with hard drives, and entered manually by an operator at each site.
4D seats are gaining popularity — Mediamation reported that, in 2018, theatres equipped with MX4D were able to charge an extra $8 per ticket on average, and raised occupancy rates to over 30%. In benefitting from these uplifts and increased occupancy, exhibitors can, however, add another element of complexity to their operations. The movement of the chairs and effects has to be coordinated perfectly. Typically this is handled outside of the TMS today. Using SMPTE DCPs, soon those cues can be automated.