Sunday, August 21, 2011

DCP takes over NZ

I went to an interesting talk the other night about Digital Cinema Package delivery. Basically the upshot is that most of New Zealand cinema's will have gone completely digital within another year. 35mm is dead!

DCP is basically a collection of files stored on a hard drive - which is then passed onto the cinema that will be playing the film. The resolution of these files is fantastic - currently 2 or 4k, but will no doubt soon go up to 6k and 8k (35mm is estimated to have a quality comparable to 1,500k, for what it's worth).

So whatever format you shoot in now will have to be transfered to DCP prior to being shown in cinemas. For a feature film this will cost around $10,000. This is because, though it is a purely digital process, only specific companies have the ability to convert your movie into DCP.

To do this they first convert your film into a digital master "print" that is then used to create the DCP copies. Each time you create one of these copies there is a fee - though this is considerably less that the creation of the first copy. These copies can be modified to add additional features such as subtitles (that are added "live" while the file plays, much as it does on your VLC player).

When cinemas receive their hard drive with the movie on it, they then need to wait for time-coded digital keys to arrive to unlock the content before they can play it (these keys are specified to the cinema and even the projector the movie is to play on). These keys will open the file for only as long as the distributer dictates - from a couple of hours to a few weeks, depending on the run.

All in all it's a HUGE shake-up of the way film is distributed - and soon these files will be transfered over the internet of course, and even the hard drives and usb sticks currently used will become obsolete.

One thing that bothered me was that as well as 35mm, this also means the death of e-cinema. While this in itself isn't a particular tragedy (it's unstandardised and allows all sorts of shoddy low-quality media to play), what does this mean for amateur film makers? Will cinemas still have the ability to play small indy films, and low budget affairs like Last Flight - made by directors like myself? While I certainly couldn't afford the cost of a 35mm print or conversion previously anyway, the emergence of e-cinema at least offered me access to big screens if I wanted them, and the new (much lower) price of approx $10,000 is still a roadblock.

With hindsight I wonder why is the conversion fee so high? If it is a digital process (albeit very processor hungry) what exactly are you paying for? And will it come down over time? I would be interested to know more about this. Essentially, as mentioned at the talk, this means that every film must have a distributor and be marketed. In other words, every film must be commercially viable.

None of this is new of course; it's always been a struggle to make films in New Zealand, and I suppose big business has moved to protect itself here as expected, so in some ways, perhaps it's actually in a bigger sense quite an irrelevant development.

Still, the blinkered, soulless march of big budget Hollywood movies into even more Michael Bay-like  depths - locked in with even tighter controls - doesn't sit entirely easy with me, and seems like a step back from the messy, internet-fueled, but inherently democratic window that e-cinema held up.

Anyway, enough. I'm off to see Planet of the apes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Damon,
One thing they did say was that trailers could be sent to the cinema on a usb stick and didn't have to be encrypted. I wonder if this is a way around all this hoopla. I really got the felling that everyone was protecting their slice of the action. Surely it would be possible to self publish content without all the middle men. Send your content direct to a cinema (or they download it) then play it with some kind of activation/key. When I connect to a bank, key's are generated and exchanged and a secure link is established without anyone in between taking a cut. Surely the same is possible with video files.

DK said...

Yeah, good point, Z, that is a handy little loophole. I also agree about the middle-men - the specific companies holding onto this ability to exclusively oversee this process. I can understand it while the processing power is so (apparently) formidable, but in 18 months Moore's Law will have demolished this roadblock as well, surely, and from that point on their raison d'etre is weakened. Their expertise (of course!) remains a valid reason for their existence, but so does enforcing the dominion of the large distribution companies.

In that sense it feels like the film companies are enforcing tougher and tougher systems to maintain control within a digital environment - - for better AND for worse.

I could be wrong however. Some of this reaction is knee-jerk lefty suspicion, and I'm open to further education!

Bob said...

Good News, the price has come down considerably. We've been producing DCP's for the last few years for theater's in the U.S., and yes it was expensive. Depending on DCP requirements though i.e., 3D, surround, subtitles, encryption, etc., production cost for an average film are under $2,000. Not bad compared to the cost average cost of HD to 35mm transfers of US $450/min.

DK said...

Good to know, thanks Bob!

Simple DCP said...

The cost of conversion is not only a roadblock, but highly unjustified in most instances. If you're looking for affordable, high quality DCP conversion I highly recommend you take a look at Simple DCP. We are based in Los Angeles and handle DCP conversion for festivals and Oscar hopefuls alike.

Prices start at $10/minute putting DCP conversion on par with HDCAM-SR tape layoff.