Guiding the Transition: How the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum propelled a movie theatre revolution

Features
Technology

In this exclusive for FJI, two founders of the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum look back on its formation and its impact on modern cinema presentations.

Over a decade ago, on May 17, 2006, the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF) had its first meeting. Digital cinema was emerging. There were 14 different server companies, several projector manufacturers, and a transitioning environment where theatres were switching out their 35mm film projectors for digital cinema projectors. These new projectors had software that needed to be updated. So did the servers. Each server had a different means of ingesting content…and a different means of ingesting keys that allowed the server to play said content. Each studio had their own unique policy on key distribution.

35mm film was still going strong even though the writing was on the wall. With all the “players” vying for a piece of the d-cinema market, 35mm film was still in a majority of the screens. And why not? In 2006, any projector could play any reel of 35mm film anywhere in the world. For d-cinema, each screen had its parameters that needed to be met to play content. This was truly the “Wild West” when it came to theatrical distribution of d-cinema content, and this craziness was keeping film alive.

Cut to today. It is a digital cinema world. 35mm film is only around for special projects and secondary markets. How did we transition so smoothly from film to digital? It took the same amount of time to make the transition to cyan-dye soundtracks on film. In fact, the cyan-dye soundtrack model is very similar to the d-cinema model. Both required changes from both distribution and exhibition. The cyan soundtrack change required distributors to change the way they put soundtracks on film. Exhibitors had to change their white-light readers to red-light readers in their projectors. This was a big ask on both sides, strictly for environmental benefits, and yes, it took almost ten years from start to complete adoption, with a cost to theatre owners of approximately $800 per screen.

Then digital cinema came along… The cost for transition was over 150 times higher than for the cyan transition. The technological factors were over 500 times greater for digital cinema than what was necessary for the cyan transition. This was why the ISDCF was started. The ISDCF had to address hundreds of issues related to the digital cinema transition, its distribution and its exhibition. Thanks to the ISDCF, the Wild West of digital cinema has been tamed to the point we are at today.

Back on May 17, 2006, at the first meeting, we set our goals and parameters, elected our chairperson, and set out to help the digital cinema transition. At that time, none of us had any idea how significant this group would become. Like any viable group, we were met with adversity at our first meeting. There was a member of SMPTE who argued that this group was unnecessary and redundant. He claimed that SMPTE would set the d-cinema standards and the marketplace would decide who the players would be. Several of us disagreed with this. There was just too much going on too fast to let SMPTE come up with standards some six or seven years down the line. By then, de facto standards would be in place, and issues were already starting to emerge that told us that.

At that first meeting, we established that, unlike the Inter-Society’s larger group that meets three times a year, this subcommittee would be a working group that meets every month (so that things would actually get done). The first several meetings were hosted at Dolby Labs in Burbank. A call-in number was provided, and two online discussion groups were started. There were 35 people in attendance at the first meeting and two or three times that calling in.

Very quickly, we determined that there was a need for this group. Ted Costas, the Inter-Society president (and co-author of this article), organized the first meeting and set the provisions for the group. First, that we meet monthly, and second, that we elect a chairman to run the meetings and a secretary to take notes and keep the group informed. Both would have two-year terms (if the group were to last that long), and be welcome to run for re-election at will. John Fithian, the NATO president, and Wayne Anderson were very active in getting the exhibition community to participate, which was essential to this group working at all. Ted nominated Jerry Pierce from Universal (this article’s other author) to chair the group, and Bill Kinder of Pixar to be the secretary. Ted had worked with Jerry on Universal’s first digital cinema release, and Bill on several Pixar movies, so he knew what he was doing when he nominated the two of them. No one else came forward, and the gavel was passed. Jerry took over and immediately turned the ISDCF into a force to be reckoned with.

Jerry started with individual input from the group, organized it, prioritized it, and set an agenda that continued to grow like the technology we now have at our fingertips—technology that allows for some of the highest-quality sound and image projection we have ever had in our lives. Currently, the group has over 460 members on the discussion list. It meets in person every six weeks, with about 40 attending in person and another 20+ calling in from all around the world.

The ISDCF has hosted info sessions and numerous “plug fests,” and it has singlehandedly brought the digital cinema world together to take each baby step as one towards a world without dual inventory, towards a world where an engineer does not have to be present for a content load, or to get keys.

Today, the ISDCF continues to “get things done” with little fanfare. Major decisions are documented as technical documents that are posted on the isdcf.com website. One of the most visible creations of the ISDCF is the Digital Cinema Naming Convention, which is hosted and maintained by the ISDCF. Currently, there are more than 800 facilities that have registered as DCP production houses. There are also over 160 studios that have registered as well. Here’s an example of how each separate DCP is named and identified worldwide: SampleTitle_FTR_F_EN-QMS_SG_51_2K_TCF_20171027_EKN_IOP_VF

The assignment of audio channels is also currently under the documentation by the ISDCF. The ISDCF continues to be the first place to go to add new technical features to digital cinema distribution and exhibition. In fact, there is a now a video track for the delivery of sign language that has been added to be available to the evolving digital cinema world.

The ISDCF’s major effort for the past three years has been to transition the industry to SMPTE DCPs from the initial inter-op DCPs. Studios have given notice that future releases will only be in the new format. This is the typical job responsibility of the ISDCF, to make sure any new technology that is introduced has the heads-up and foresight to give that technology the chance to succeed in the marketplace. For the transition to the SMPTE DCP, the ISDCF provides the test materials that are being used to verify that theatres are ready. What’s next for digital cinema? Keep tabs on the ISDCF and you’ll always be in the know.