Representatives of Hollywood's top movie studios say they have agreed on technical specifications that will make it easier to distribute and display movies digitally.
Digital Cinema Initiatives, the industry consortium created in 2002 to unite studios, theater owners and tech manufacturers in planning the shift to digital, released version 1.0 of its requirements and specifications for digital cinema Wednesday.
The document represents three years of testing, planning and debate that united the studios, which are more accustomed to competing with each other than collaborating.
The motivation behind that unity, as with many things in Hollywood, is money.
Studios spent more than $631 million in 2003 on film prints for the North American market alone, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Subtracting reels from that equation could reduce total distribution costs by as much as 90 percent, according to U.K. digital cinema analyst Patrick von Sychowski. Add in costs for overseas distribution and exhibition, and the move from prints to digital files could mean an eventual annual savings of up to $900 million.
Advocates of the shift to digital exhibition say theater owners also would benefit from new flexibility: If a movie sells out in one theater, an owner can quickly switch other screens to that feature to accommodate the unexpected demand. And if a supposed blockbuster turns out to be a bomb, it can be yanked from screens just as instantly -- no new prints from the studio, no reel swaps.
Proponents say there's something in it for moviegoers, too -- digital in-theater display means no out-of-focus projection, no out-of-order reels, no scratches and pops on film that's been played too many times on old projectors. And digital systems could make other kinds of content possible in theaters, including live, high-definition coverage of sports events, Broadway plays or group games.
Filmmakers who issued statements applauding Wednesday's announcement include George Lucas, John Lasseter, Robert Zemeckis and Robert Rodriguez.
Another supporter, longtime digital cinema advocate James Cameron, is among directors pursuing projects that use stereo 3-D techniques created specifically for digital projection. Cameron's CGI/live-action feature Battle Angel
, based on the Yukito Kishiro graphic novel Battle Angel Alita, is designed for 3-D and is slated for a mid-2007 release by 20th Century Fox.
"I want people to experience movies as vividly as possible, and it may become possible to project at thousands of frames per second, because with digital you are no longer moving something in a solid state," Cameron said in a recent interview. "The physics of the medium haven't been maxed out, as they have with film. The limiting factor now becomes not the system, but human perception itself."
Security provisions in the DCI spec deal mostly with what happens in theaters, and detail an open security architecture that allows a variety of tech vendors to compete and hone their technologies over time. The system proposed by DCI relies on digital rights management, watermarking, content encryption and key management. Digital movie files are to be encrypted for transport and receipt by theaters, which then would use decryption keys to unlock the content.
The system is also designed to generate a data forensics bread-crumb trail, with the intent of tracing piracy incidents after the fact back to the theaters in which they occurred.
"Tracking it to the theater won't help, because attackers with camcorders could just make their visits to theaters random," said security analyst Jacob Appelbaum of LogicLibrary. "It means that the camcorders just have to fit into the crowd, and then the theaters have a reason not to adopt this. It's already against the law."
Studio representatives acknowledge that the DCI security specifications do nothing to prevent in-theater copying of movies, which remains a top piracy method.
"These technical solutions won't solve internal theft by camcorders," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "But we're working on human-resources solutions and incentives to help address that part of the problem."
Others cited the difficulties involved in the plan's "forensic watermarking" provisions.
"There's no such thing as a watermark that is both invisible and hard to remove, because by definition, a watermark that adds no perceptible information to a signal leaves no perceptible change behind after it is removed," said Cory Doctorow, European-outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Doctorow believes that provisions in the document that detail logging, checking and revoking the right to exhibit could mean that network problems at digital cinema facilities could impair exhibitors' ability to show movies for which they've bought rights.
"A theater's ability to screen a movie could become dependent on the reliability of their internet connection at the moment they plan to screen it," said Doctorow. "A widespread flash-worm attack that brings down or slows large chunks of the internet, or a targeted attack on the license server, could theoretically darken every movie screen in America -- or the world."
To see the complete DCI spec:
http://www.dcimovies.com/DCI_Digital_Ci ... pec_v1.pdf