Exhibs mull tech mix for switch

Decisions to be made regarding system architecture

Now that the standards for digital cinema have been set, exhibs are starting to think about how to integrate those systems into their theaters.

Decisions will have to be made regarding system architecture; how digital files move to the projectors; security encryption; theater automation; and how to handle programming that does not meet the standards set by the Digital Cinema Initiatives such as preshows, advertisements and alternative programming.

“There needs to be some flexibility there for the theater operators and that’s not really something that’s within the studios’ scope — it’s not within the DCI scope at all — but it is definitely on the mind of cinema operators,” says Charles Swartz, exec director and CEO of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center.

Some vendors will offer all-in-one solutions, and preshow content likely will migrate over to DCI-compliant systems once they’re available. But for the transition, theaters with some kind of system already in place will have to make some choices about how to make different formats and technology work together.

Regal CineMedia, the nation’s largest exhib, has installed its Digital Content Network on more than 5,300 of its 6,273 screens. The system is used to distribute and project “The 2wenty,” a program of short-form entertainment segments as well as bigscreen concerts and other events.

The technology used for the DCN is in the MPEG2 format, not the JPEG2000 format called for by the DCI, but Regal prexy-CEO Kurt Hall says the system was designed so it could be upgraded to a digital platform. “We’ve really tried to design our DCN around the thinking of digital cinema so that when the equipment and the specifications are finalized and there’s equipment available and financed by the studios, it’ll be very easy to integrate it into our network.”

John Wolski, VP of projection and sound for Loews Cineplex and chairman of an Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers panel on theater operations, says the big concern for exhibs is making sure new systems can communicate with their current ones. “If you’re using a proprietary operating system that was written strictly for your equipment and then you try to introduce Microsoft Windows into that system, those two systems don’t talk to each other. That’s when it gets complicated.”

The transition from a non-DCI digital system to a compliant one will be simpler than the transition from film to digital, and some exhibs will run the systems side by side, Wolski says. “There’s no reason to sit around and wait for digital cinema before you put a preshow in because there’s a solid business plan in putting digital advertisements on a screen. You can pay for this equipment through the business model and enjoy a profit.”

Wayne Anderson, chairman, prexy and CEO of Maryland-based R/C Theaters, agrees. The company is considering adding digitally projected preshow content and ads because of the revenue they can bring in.

Alternative programming such as concerts or sports broadcasts raises a different issue, and theaters will need their hardware to be able to handle an HDTV format that streams into its systems like a broadcast.

New systems also need to work with intratheater operations, which includes scheduling trailers, dimming the lights and parting the curtain, to reporting system health and recording how many people are in the theater when an ad plays.

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