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Digital Cinema Rollout Hinges on Agreement

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LAS VEGAS -- In the wake of a worldwide rollout to digital cinema, the international perspective on the transition is rife with conflicting views, not the least of which is whether the global exhibition community will faithfully adopt technical and business standards devised by Hollywood studios.

That transition was the topic of a ShoWest panel here Monday featuring nine international d-cinema stakeholders. Digital Cinema Initiatives member Julian Levin, executive vp digital exhibition and nontheatrical sales at 20th Century Fox, led the discussion.

"The international market generally and significantly outperforms the U.S. market in pure box office performance," Levin said. "There are about 35,000 screens in the U.S., while the international market has about 100,000 screens. ... The transition to digital cinema is not only a U.S.-driven initiative, but more importantly, the international markets will make up the lion's share of the world's screens in order to achieve ultimate scale and global adoption of digital cinema."

Although DCI published its d-cinema specifications in July, the text now is being read and interpreted by exhibitors and manufacturers worldwide. The practical, cultural, business and technical matters that affect participants in the rollout have begun to influence how the spec is construed in various territories, including the U.S.

Kurt Hall, president of National CineMedia -- a U.S.-based exhibition consortium that includes AMC, Regal and Cinemark -- highlighted the challenges of applying what is outlined in the DCI documents to NCM's 14,000-screen networked exhibition environment.

"What we've learned is that operating in a digital environment is much more challenging than a lot of people think," Hall said, noting that NCM is working hard to evolve the DCI spec into something real. "Today we have a bunch of words on a piece of paper. Now I think we're going about the job of turning those words into real systems that can be operated efficiently cost-effectively and time after time after time."

The question of who or what determines whether an exhibitor's d-cinema system meets DCI specifications already is a grave concern to theater owners faced with having studio content withheld unless their systems are deemed secure.

Recently, an Italian theater owner, for example, was not allowed to digitally display Fox's upcoming "Ice Age 2" because the exhibitor's d-cinema server does not meet DCI security specifications, according to a studio exec involved in distributing digital titles overseas, who declined to be named.

With the guarantee that many more similar instances are sure to arise, DCI recently engaged Germany's Fraunhofer Institute to write a test procedure that ensures that exhibitor equipment is up to specification. Fraunhofer's DCI test material is expected to be published in the fall, according to DCI and Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineer DC-28 members.

"There clearly needs to be some kind of certification program, and a number of initiatives are under way," said Tim Partridge, senior vp/general manager professional at Dolby Labs.

Before DCI engaged Fraunhofer, a cabal of U.S.-based d-cinema equipment providers had planned to offer a certification program -- and may still, depending on the nature of Fraunhofer's publication.

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Sheigh Crabtree writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

For more news from The Hollywood Reporter, click here.

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