DCP S.O.S.: The digital juggernaut hastens the last analog picture show


With the ascent and imminent victory of DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) over photochemical film, even the hallowed word “film” is on shaky ground. No longer the mechanically driven, chemically endowed proverbial moving image that moved through projectors, film playing in close to three-quarters of the country’s theatres is now an array of pixilated images of precisely ordered, digitally dictated audio and visual files.

So is the term “film” doomed for near extinction along with the analog formats and attendant equipment that have been industry pillars for more than a century? Might words like “movie,” “cinema” or “motion picture” become film’s new designation? (“Flick” is definitely out of the running.)

But semantic ambiguity is the least of the tremors unleashed by the DCP storm. While audiences, oblivious to so much change, continue to sit back and enjoy, exhibitors, vendors and the content itself are being digitally stirred, if not shaken.

There’s been no shortage of news coverage and industry grumbling about the plight of many independent theatre owners, largely in less populated areas of the U.S., who cannot afford the digital conversion.

One such exhibitor is Sally Strasser, who owns, books and runs the two-screen, 100-year-old State Theatre in the small Adirondack town of Tupper Lake, New York, where she shows both first-run and sub-run films. Not set up for DCPs, Strasser must rely on prints, but these are now harder to come by from the studios.

Strasser, who is also projectionist/manager for Disney’s midtown screening room in Manhattan, also works there with DCPs and is an admirer. But like so many small theatre owners, she does not see conversion in her upstate theatre as financially viable. Through an alliance of 13 theatres with 37 screens in her area, she is hoping for a government grant to help pay for the conversion. (See part one of this report, which appeared in last month’s issue.)

Strasser estimates that outfitting for her two-screen theatre will cost about $160,000 plus additional costs for air conditioning or new sound set-ups. For now, joining a VPF (Virtual Print Fee) program is not an option, as she wants to stay independent of that agreement.
But obtaining analog prints from the studios is getting harder and harder. “Already there are so many DCP theatres and very few analog film prints around. So there’s a long wait for first runs, as there are just a few prints available for my area. I also think the studios are using this scarcity as pressure to get the smaller theatres to convert.”

“I'd like to forgo the VPF as well because it will be easier to get digital content without it, especially getting films earlier for my theatre. Studios don’t acknowledge this, but it is the truth. They are still operating as if they are using film.”

Strasser is currently having a hard time getting studio prints of films like Hope Springs or The Expendables 2 and is forced to hold other films longer because “there’s a shortage of 35mm prints of marketable films for me.”

The VPF program, she adds, also makes a theatre’s multi-purposing beyond studio product difficult, as distributors pay VPFs according to how often and when their films run. “Running alternative programming, if I were in the VPF program, would cost me money,” she explains, as dedicating showtimes for product not covered by the program would be money losers because full payment of the weekly fees paid to theatres, per the agreement, would be withheld.

Based on her own research and buzz among colleagues, Strasser believes that working with middleman integrators—who do the paperwork and make payments for the studios—is no solution because the fees they pass on may not be enough to cover loans to theatres. Also, she says, VPF integrators require exhibitor owners to sign a NDA (non-disclosure agreement) that prevents them from getting specific information that would let them compare deals or know who’s offering what.

Like many small, independent theatre owners, Strasser has a commitment to community. “We show nature shows, fundraisers, local live shows and an occasional film from a local and I think it’s my responsibility to serve my public in this way.”

What Strasser hasn’t yet researched is how a VPF program would work with a bank loan, although she is mulling the option of going nonprofit. She also perceives a bias against small theatres. “I’m hearing that to qualify for a bank loan or VPF program [to convert], you need a certain percentage of first-run films.”

Strasser airs current concerns as a legacy exhibitor yet to convert: “I only have two screens, which means that I don't have room to play all of the films my patrons want to see ‘on the break.’ Because of this scarcity, it's become difficult to book new films early and at a time when studio marketing stirs interest and awareness.”

Converting to digital should fix this problem, she believes, noting that the studios have marketing plans that primarily only let their films play in markets that will gross a certain amount. “This notion should not apply in digital distribution, but still seems to be in place. The cost for each digital print is so much smaller to the studios that it seems unfair from my point of view that this happens. I want these films earlier in my very small town, which would also have my audiences attend movies more frequently.”

Bypassing the VPF, she believes, will make it easier to get films. “By this I mean that if a film distributor can forego the VPF payment, they may be more inclined to give me a film. More people come to the movies when the studio publicity is going on, just prior or early in the release. As a result, my theatre would do much better if I ran releases while they are fresh in people's minds and it would fuel their habit of attending movies in general. And even the industry in general benefits from this.”

Even those at smaller venues, usually in urban areas, that have already transitioned echo Strasser’s views and premonitions. Says John Vanco, senior VP and general manager of New York’s IFC Center, “My major concern/complaint is about the overall transition process, which has been designed to benefit the studios and the chains. Many, many small, independent theatres, which are vital to the survival of non-studio films, will end up being fatally hobbled by the transition. They may be able to raise funds to cover the initial conversion, but what will crush many of them in the long term is the ongoing capital resources that will be necessary to continue to have DCI-compliant equipment in the next 10 and 20 years.

“Many of these theatres have been able to survive over the past decades because their overhead was small and very little capital investment was required, so they could survive on low margins. Now, realistically, in the same way the current inexorable pattern of planned obsolescence forces consumers to continually repurchase computers, phones, etc., cinemas too are going to find that they have to spend much more for cinema equipment over the next 20 years than they did, say, from 1980 to 2000. The nuts & bolts P&L on this will mean that many small theatres will close, to the detriment of film culture and audiences. We don’t need more chain screens—we need small, independent, mission-driven art-house theatres that will program and curate, and not just play whatever the studios jam into them. So these technological progressions will make it harder for those small theatres to survive.”

Beyond the financial challenges, exhibition stragglers about to embrace conversion also need help in understanding and obtaining the necessary N2K (need-to-know) aspects of the new technology and many choices of equipment and support involved. Integrators, consultants and vendors are founts of information, as is reliable word-of-mouth. Or exhibitors, going with the DIY trend, can educate themselves.

But good old-fashioned brain-picking is another way to go. Says Quad Cinema president Elliott S. Kanbar, who converted two of his four screens at his theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village, “I have top-notch union projectionists who advised me.”

The major components of the DCP-upgraded theatre booths are the servers, projectors and IMBs (Integrated Media Blocks) that enable the interfacing.

Beyond the radical equipment and technology changes, the DCP conversion also suggests a possible shift in content. In the DCP-comfortable corner are the studios and large circuits that will continue to thrive on mainstream DCP releases. But DCP conversion is energizing smaller theatres in New York City with independent films and DCP-restored classics.

While the Quad has become a mecca for better-heeled indie filmmakers eager to four-wall their films and (cross fingers) garner highly coveted positive press reviews and Oscar eligibility, it continues to devote screens to bigger titles, including foreign favorites and studio fare, especially second runs of big features. But Kanbar says that there are few DCPs on the indie side, especially in the documentary category. “Blu-rays work just fine on our screens.”

Manhattan’s venerable art house and repertory cinema Film Forum, which offers first-run indies and rich and beloved classics programs, has recently been delighting film fans with DCP presentations of films like William Wellman’s Oscar-winning Wings, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the Jean Seberg-starrer Bonjour Tristesse, and the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire classic Funny Face (also a Kay Thompson classic for many).

Several months ago, Film Forum ran a series of DCP films along with an informative DCP-themed event called “Side by Side” (only thematically related to the doc of that title) that presented both a DCP (a Sony 4K-scanned DCP restoration played back as 2K) and the best available 35mm print of Dr. Strangelove—a shootout that calmed the fears of celluloid purists and digital doubters, in other words all those emotionally attached to film on film.

Film Forum director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein, among others, points out that the quality of DCPs can vary. “If done right [to avoid] a digital, flat look, DCP is very vivid and emulates the look of the best-quality 35mm film. Issues in arriving at the best DCP have very much to do with what are the original source elements [negative is best but often a master positive, internegative or even a print must serve as the origination material] and who’s doing the restoration.”

A plus with DCPs, he observes, is that because they are all encoded, “there’s little you can screw up” when projecting them. But Goldstein did encounter one film whose subtitle file wouldn’t perform. Other exhibitors speak of rare glitches involving malfunctioning hard drives, KDM (Key Delivery Message) decoding flash drives that wouldn’t allow access, etc.
As to how Goldstein might persuade studios other than Sony to pay more attention to their classics and restore them, he answers, “I’d show them the financial rewards of how well we’ve done with these.”

The journey to DCP restorations begins with 2K or 4K scanning of the film. Sony is in the vanguard in this effort and reportedly is scanning Lawrence of Arabia in a record-breaking 6K for reissue.

Whatever the scan, the results can be spectacular, as even classics from the ’30s like Maurice Tourneur’s 1935 gangster classic Justin de Marseille and Jean Renoir’s 1932 Michel Simon starrer Boudu Saved from Drowning, shown at Film Forum, have miraculously pristine images.

The former startles as if newly made; the latter, also sparkling, especially impresses with remarkably crisp imagery and shots with deep depth of field. Newer films like Sony’s spectacular restoration of Bonjour Tristesse, long revived with battered or faded prints, are also blazingly gorgeous.

Greenwich Village’s IFC Center, a for-profit theatre operation part of AMC Network’s family of cable channels and IFC Films, also presents a mix of indie first-run and classics/repertory. Its recent James Bond tribute featured a presentation of the like-new DCP restoration of the franchise’s inaugural 1962 Dr. No.

The Center, a restoration of the old Walter Reade Waverly Theatre, houses five screens of which four are DCP-upgraded. Currently, about 70% of bookings are DCPs but this rises each month, reports Vanco. Most of the DCPs are for first run, he continues, while he still sees “a lot of 35mm for rep.”

Asked where in the next few years DCP will have the most impact in terms of the kind of theatrical content he’ll be offering, he cautions, “I fear the studios will not go very deep into their archives for DCPs, so I worry many lesser-known older films will not be available on either 35mm or DCP.”

But so far the advent of DCPs has not affected IFC’s programming, as “we’ve always played the best format available, so we play what we want to play.” And touting “New DCP Restoration” is not yet ready to have the marketing impact of “New 35mm Print,” he believes.

Overall, aside from some “celluloid purist” tendencies, Vanco is comfortable with the transition, the standardization and flexibility it has brought. The perks of DCP include the ability to switch programs between screens and not having to worry about working with multiple copies.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s (FSLC) two theatres—the single-screen Walter Reade and the new three-screen Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (whose small third screen is in open space and used mainly for art-oriented videos and live feeds)—also programs first-run and repertory. Additionally, the FSLC runs the venerable New York Film Festival (NYFF), about to launch its 50th session this month. FSLC’s three main auditoriums are equipped for all formats, including DCPs and both 35mm and 70mm presentations.
Scott Foundas, associate program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and NYFF screening committee member, says that, like most, the Film Society appreciates DCP’s better resolution and efficiencies but also the format’s lower shipping costs because, as in the case of a recent Gene Kelly tribute, the FSLC had to shoulder those expenses.

The highlight of the tribute was the new DCP of An American in Paris. The theatres project the DCPs at 2K, although “we’ve borrowed Sony 4K projectors in the past and we’ve talked about getting one.”

Unlike many, Foundas believes that film, in spite of the DCP evolution, will be strong for a while because, unlike the new studio pictures, classics are still about 80% on film. “But for those big Hollywood films, there’s really no choice because it’s all going DCP.”

As a programmer, Foundas, like Goldstein, does not need to know the minutiae behind the creation, transfer and quality-control tools and methods for the DCP. But DCP conversions can vary in quality. “What I care about,” he says, “is whether the DCP is good enough and whether someone involved in the making of or converting the film has been very involved in issues like color, light, etc., so that the filmmaker’s and DP’s intentions are honored. As an example, the closest I might get is with a film like James Toback’s Fingers, which recently played at the New York Film Festival. We contributed to the cost of getting the DCP made, so we worked with the studio, Warner Bros., on that.”

Foundas also addresses the alarm sounded in the doc Side By Side about the archiving problem that DCPs may be creating. While a silver-nitrate negative can deteriorate, it is still more of a sure thing from a preservation standpoint, as digital formats and their playback devices change frequently and obsolesce (e.g., there aren’t a lot of VCR players around for our beloved VHSs gathering dust). He notes that an AMPAS study predicts problems may indeed arise in ten years, but for now and from his perspective, “DCP is a good thing.”

DCPs are also a good thing for other art and rep-oriented houses in the New York area. The Museum of Modern Art recently had several DCP features in its Brazilian series. And outside Manhattan, theatres like Brooklyn’s BAM and Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image also offer DCPs.

But the takeaway here—and it’s only a guess—is that DCP-restored film classics might get a big boost just as they got one, quite unexpectedly, from Turner Classic Movies. The restorations are gorgeous and older audiences will thrill to what will seem like new experiences of their old favorites. But there are also young audiences—kids who are still digging grandpa rocker Mick Jagger (entering his second half-century of superstardom)—who are as much film as music fans.

As this future plays out, exhibitors who have converted play host to new residents in their booths (projectors, servers, sound systems, IMBs, KDMs, lamps, lenses, management, network and security systems, etc.). On the equipment and service side have come a number of partnerships and equipment packages like that of Doremi and Barco with their DP2K-32Bx, which bundles server, projector and IMB from a single vendor.

One of the world’s major designers and manufacturers in the DCP space, Doremi Labs, whose products empower the creation and playback/output stages for DCPs, offers the ubiquitous DCP-2000 cinema servers for the 4K DLP projectors. It is also a major provider of IMBs (notably, their IMB-4K), the boards on projectors or servers that decode and decrypt DCP files for shows. This summer saw the launch of Doremi’s more versatile DCP-2K4 servers, which allows ingestion from a disk in addition to a hard drive.

Says Doremi marketing communications manager Hany Adeeb, “We were the first manufacturer of the IMB [either on the server or projector] to be DCI-certified.” The advantage of Doremi’s IMB is that it allows exhibitors to upgrade their projectors to 2K or 4K without having to do a hardware swap, as Doremi’s software does the trick.

Looking ahead, Adeeb says Doremi is focusing on high-frame-rate projection by way of a software upgrade for IMBs. “The projectors are coming and we’ll be the only ones who can provide the solution.”

Another giant in this DCP space is Sony, with its leading-edge 4K projection systems and so much else. Using proprietary technology rather than Texas Instruments DLP Cinema technology for the Barco, Christie, NEC and Kinoton systems, Sony’s SXRD LCoS (liquid crystal) optical system for its much-heralded 4K SRXR320P projector delivers 4K resolution and smooth 3D images. On the content side, Sony is a leader in DCP restoration, tapping classics from its library for conversion.

Relief is in sight for smaller theatres that balk at the Sony 4K prices. Mark Lewis, director of digital cinema international marketing for Sony’s Digital Cinema Solutions group, promises that later this year Sony will introduce the SRXR515P projector for smaller exhibitors and “it will be priced accordingly.” Texas Instruments also introduced a smaller chip this spring which will result in lower-priced projectors for smaller theatres from its OEMs Christie, Barco and NEC.

Another big player in the DCP space, Qube manufactures DCI-compliant products like servers, IMBs, software, and KDM generation in the digital cinema, mastering and distribution categories. Eric Bergez, the company’s director of sales and marketing, is especially excited about its new uncompressed 4K IMB for digital projectors that, simplifying 4K review for post-production, allows post houses to color-finish/correct in 4K uncompressed real time. In this critical intermediary stage of creating the DCP for theatres, Qube gives post houses a big step forward by enabling them to stream uncompressed 4K from the server directly to the projector. Qube’s Master Pro software is for high-end mastering, but the company also offers independent filmmakers who use Final Cut Pro (FCP) software an Apple plug for lower-end but DCI-compliant DCP creation in FCP’s Studio Suite. Looking ahead, Bergez says that in the not-too-distant future his company and others will provide a theatre with a central server/storage system for all screens rather than requiring each screen to have its own server. Also helping independents, QuVIS stands out as a provider of DCP-creation software (Wraptor 2.0) for DIY filmmakers. For the less DIY-inclined, the company has just begun offering its new Wraptor DCP services that take over the grunt work by providing “a fast, reliable and attractively priced option for creating, archiving and distributing studio-quality DCPs.”

QuVIS VP of marketing Darci Klein says that the company primarily serves filmmakers during their editing process. But QuVIS also just introduced a distribution service to get content to exhibitors via FTP sites. When a filmmaker uses our DCP service, we archive the project and, at the filmmaker’s request, send the movie to exhibitors.” Primary customers are filmmakers, but post houses and theatres also embrace QuVIS products. For now, its Wraptor 2.0 software is only Mac-compatible, but at $699 it is not expensive. Standard DCP service for a 90-minute film runs about $1,600 and Klein says it will be interesting to see whether it’s the software or the service in the DCP space that most attracts filmmakers.
As for what QuVIS can mean for presentation, Klein offers, “DCP quality is the best [over other formats] and QuVIS DCP, whether it’s software or service, uses a proprietary encoding method that delivers a richer show. When any film is encoded, some data is lost in the process. The question is: How much is lost, and how does this affect the film? Our proprietary encoding algorithms result in less lost data than other choices. This yields more details, and better quality.” This fall, QuVIS releases its DCP player, mainly for use by filmmakers and studios rather than theatres but a far less expense alternative to the DCP hardware players costing upwards of $60,000. “This is important news,” Klein asserts. “It’s the first real software DCP player in the market and our price will be under $1,000. To play their DCPs, filmmakers have to persuade a local cinema to let them use the equipment off-hours. This persuasion usually involves money, and always involves inconvenience.” Like everyone else, even film festivals and their venues and filmmakers have had to make adjustments. The digital jolt to perennially strapped filmmakers is especially severe, as their costs can hover from an additional $6,000 to $20,000 and more just to format their fest entries as DCPs. These days, says the New York Film Festival’s Foundas, about 60 to 70% of fest selections are DCPs. Docs might run in lower-end formats, but most narrative features are DCPs. (And the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival showed a record 232 films in DCP format.) When screening submissions, the NYFF screening committee is usually watching entries in formats like HDCAM or Blu-ray, but when completed, especially if selected, these films get DCP upgrades.

Smaller but also prestigious events like the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), entering its 20th year, have also weathered the DCP invasion. Says David Nugent, director of programming for HIFF, which uses as its primary site a Regal multiplex in the Village of East Hampton, “We had our big change last year when Regal eliminated its 35mm screens. So we went from having had eleven 35mm screens for the festival to three and from zero DCP screens to seven. So this year, seven of our eleven screens are DCP-capable.”

Also caught up in this DCP maelstrom are the swarms of serious-minded film critics, academics, film scholars, tech-savvy execs and programmers, a sample of whom weigh in on DCPs in the current fall 2012 issue of Cineaste, a politically inclined magazine for dedicated cinephiles that has been going strong since the ’60s. While one contributor provides an outpouring of mostly (unintentionally funny) arcane, abstract and pretentious musings on the transition, others in the survey deliver some provocative, cogent but not always optimistic insights. Writes author and University of Wisconsin emeritus professor David Bordwell, “I do not think that either the major distributors or the biggest theatre chains care if an exhibitor in Harmony, Minnesota, goes out of business. At this point, small theatres are probably a pain in the neck for the U.S. film industry. It’s not implausible that many think: Let the yokels drive to a bigger town or [in these post-video store times] let them wait and watch the movie on cable or rent the DVD at the gas station [once thriving video stores have already bitten the dust].”

All bets are off as to how small theatres and even the venerable word “film” will get through this storm.