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Partnering up

With d-cinema details set, deals begin to shape the rollout

After three years of painstaking work, Digital Cinema Initiatives, the seven-studio joint venture to create a common set of technical specs for digital cinema, has completed its work.

That means manufacturers of projectors, servers and other equipment has exact parameters on what file format, resolution and — in the issue that took up most of DCI’s time last year — content protection to use in order to get access to studio content.

But in practice, it means something more important: the future of d-cinema is no longer a question of bits and bytes, but of coin.

“The DCI specs gives all participants an equal and uniform starting point technologically,” says Chuck Goldwater, former DCI topper and current topper at Christie/AIX, a joint venture of Christie and AccessIT established to fund the rollout of d-cinema systems — with the parent company’s technology, of course. Christie/AIX has already signed deals for content with Disney and Fox.

That model — where tech companies, either alone or in teams, act as a funding vehicle for d-cinema rollout and promote the use of their products — seems to be the trend, industryites say.

Kodak and Barco have formed a similar partnership. Technicolor is in talks with studios to get content for its deployment of hardware. Dolby is teaming with Disney for a 3-D digital version of “Chicken Little” to use as leverage to install its servers in theaters.

“This is a model that can work for everybody, which is why you’re starting to see all these partnerships,” says Robert Gibbons, director of marketing for Kodak Digital Cinema.

Under Christie/AIX’s plan, the company raised $18 million to deploy 150 d-cinema systems this year and used that initial leverage to get commitments from Disney and Fox to provide films, with more studios expected to follow shortly. With major studios involved, company hopes to convince institutional investors like Wall Street banks to invest the hundreds of millions it would take to reach its goal of operating on 4,000 screens.

Investors would get their money back out of the “virtual print fees” the joint ventures charge studios to handle films — a sum that should be significantly less than the cost of producing and distributing movie reels today. Christie and AccessIT, meanwhile, benefit from the sale of 4,000 d-cinema projectors and servers.

At this year’s ShowEast, many competitors will be showing off their latest technology in hopes of lining up similar deals by appealing to exhibs, studios and investors.

If such plans succeed, the ultimate transition of America’s 36,000 movie screens to digital would happen piecemeal, with Christie/AIX aiming to take 10% and others biting off small shares until the totals start to add up. That’s in sharp contrast to previous talk of a massive multibillion-dollar rollout facilitated by the studios.

But after years and years of talk, most Hollywood techies agree with Gibbons, “This thing is finally coming together and that’s great.”

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