The ABCs of DCPs: Unwrapping the Digital Cinema Package


With the digital storm having reached its height for theatres, it’s still raining confusion, anxiety and excitement for many, no thanks to a downpour of new acronyms that compress but muddy this new tech-powered environment.

Tech details and some benign carpetbaggers that have invaded the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) space are a hard row to hoe for the uninitiated, but fortunately those in distribution and exhibition need only know a fraction of these paper- and time-saving abbreviations. So let some of these N2K (need to know) acronyms and tech highlights fly!

First and foremost, the DCP is a file format and collection of digital files for storing and conveying DC (Digital Cinema) audio, image and data streams for playback on theatre projector systems. DC, once the umbrella term for all films in digital (HDCAM, Blu-ray, DigiBeta, DVDs, files off Quicktime, etc.), now refers in the U.S. to DCPs in theatres. Because of this association, DC is also distinct from HDTV (High-Definition TV) because it is not dependent on television or HD (high-definition) video standards, aspect ratios or frame rates. It is also distinct from E-Cinema, a term largely used for theatres overseas in places like India and Japan where digital standards differ from those set by DCI, the digital-cinema initiative co-venture of the major Hollywood studios behind the DCP standards.

Created in 2002, DCI emerged on the heels of work done in 2000 by SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) when it became clear that for big pictures on big screens, something more than HDTV was needed. DCI, working with SMPTE on the formatting of the data and with the American Society of Cinematographers, published its final specifications including, for the advanced technologically and acronym-inclined, details regarding 2K and 4K resolution and the JPEG and MPEG algorithms that are the pillars of a DCP.

DCPs have either a 2K or 4K pixel count, “pixel” being short for “picture elements,” and DCP standards even provide for shapes of the individual pixels. The more pixels in a frame, the sharper the picture, and this higher image resolution is what sets DCP apart in terms of visual quality from the other digital formats like Blu-ray. We’ll skip the mind-numbing, bragging numbers designating 2K and 4K, except to say that these represent the horizontal pixel count only; aspect ratios for screens offering either 2K or 4K of resolution are either 1.85 or 2.39.

These 2K/4K and on-the-way 6K resolutions refer to both how the film material is scanned for the DCP conversion and to the quality of the playback projection (whether via Barco, Christie, NEC, Kinoton or 4K/6K pioneer Sony). Currently most DCPs are scanned at 4K resolution and played back in theatres at 2K (although many sites are upgrading from 2K to 4K).

For its file structure (digital is all about files), the DCP uses the MXF (Material Exchange Format) file structure for PCM audio and the more familiar JPEG 2000 video streams, which are compressed because they are so large (pictures hold a lot of information).
Important in this DCP rollout are the post houses, labs and facilities, adhering to the DCI specs, that do the DCP mastering, encoding, quality-control checks and, for bigger studio releases, create the post-production, pre-DCP DCDMs (Digital Cinema Distribution Masters) that, among other things, make possible easy alternative DCP overseas and archiving versions. Smaller films need only the DSM (Digital Source Master).

For theatres, the pragmatic advantage of the DCI specs and the DCP—what helped assure its adoption—is that they assure interoperability and compatibility of content as it flows from studios and distributors to exhibitors.

The flow, of course, begins with creation and capture (whether on celluloid or low-end digital to highest-end digital capture with cameras like the Red, Arri Alexa or Canon). Editing is usually done with FCP (Final Cut Pro), AVID or Adobe. The post-production, lab, special effects and color adjustment phases offer a mass of new acronyms and tech-talk that are best left for the tech-tolerant.

The completed DCP, which began either digitally or captured photochemically, typically arrives in theatre booths stored in a small, plastic-encased hard-drive (think flash drive, only bigger and more square), typically a five-pounds-shy Cru Dataport DX-115 caddy that also typically loads into the server (audio pioneer Dolby plays one of the major roles in the server business) for ingestion and interface with the DCP-compatible projector. Another projection booth co-star, the IMB (the Integrated Media Block), contains a DCP’s data files of audio, subtitle and encryption information and decrypts and decodes the DCP itself.

Glitches in the booth are rare but can arise when unlocking codes or subtitle files don’t work. And no show goes on without the KDM (the key delivery message) that unlocks the DCP for showing and is specific to the booth’s server and projector and the theatre’s screen. The keys are digit codes that activate the content for a certain amount of time (maybe only a few hours or even open-ended for long runs) and are controlled and generated by a film’s distributor.

And, FYI, as long as we’re on an acronym tear, let’s not omit exhibition’s wake-up call to what was going on. It was in 2007 that AMC, Regal and Cinemark forged their DCIP (Digital Cinema Implementation Partners) co-venture to ease their transition from film to digital.

By now, most in the industry are resigned to the fact that photochemical film (except for old titles not yet designated for DCP restoration) is headed to that great trims-and-outs bin in the sky. It’s old news now that Kodak is in bankruptcy; film labs, post houses and special-effects houses have transitioned to digital; camera and projector manufacturers are practically out of the 35mm business; the studios will cease 35mm
distribution by 2015; the buzz is that 90% of U.S. theatres will be digital by 2013; and
back in January there were more digital than 35mm theatre screens.

While careful not to create panic, the must-see new documentary Side By Side covers this not-quite-consummated DC revolution from celluloid to digital in gentle, balanced but compelling terms. The message is that traditional motion picture production and presentation on celluloid is, well, adios amigos, although a few dissenters continue to tout the “warmth” and “granular authenticity” of celluloid.

Also well-known are the several key factors behind this historic transition. 3D, whose rebirth gave significant impetus to theatre conversion, lives more comfortably, efficiently and profitably in the digital realm; digital capture is more efficient than celluloid capture; digital material is more easily manipulated in lab and post work; distribution of digital on hard drives is a lot cheaper than manufacturing and railroading around prints (and now more common than broadband or satellite transmission), and digital can’t be scratched or chewed up by projectors or easily pirated.

According to the latest (acronym alert) NATO statistics, of the current 5,732 theatres in the U.S. and their 39,908 screens, 3,441 locations are currently equipped with digital projection, up from 2,801 last year. NATO, which has no accurate numbers for Canada, expects the transition to DC in the U.S. to be complete sometime next year. NATO does not have figures on digitally equipped theatres that are not DCI-compatible.

The big pluses for theatres converting to DCP capability are all about no image degradation, magnificent visual quality, more product and no railroading of prints. The minus, of course, is the cost for theatres to convert, but that is where VPFs (Virtual Print Fees) and community and government support enter the DCP picture.

VPFs, initiated by some of the Hollywood studios and enabled by NATO, was a recognition of the cost-savings digital meant to studios and the cost burden it meant to theatres. The program contrived financing options for theatres large and small, helping many to convert to DCP capability. In this mix came Cinedigm, pulling this whole new order together for exhibitors.

The country’s major digital integrator, Cinedigm presciently got into the DC deployment business just as the digital evolution was firing up. The slam-dunk was its selection by DCI to handle the conversion, installation, operations support and VPF administering for the revolutionary digital rollout to North American theatres.

But not all theatres view the VPF program as a means to make the conversion. Asked how Cinedigm might persuade exhibition stragglers who haven’t yet converted to DC or upgraded to DCP capability to do so, Cinedigm chief marketing officer Jill Calcaterra responds, “At this point, film will be dead in the fairly near-future. The studios have already said that to exhibition, so at this point it’s not about Cinedigm [getting the additional business] nearly as much as the theatres simply needing to keep up with the technology shifts that inevitably happen in every media. With the increasing availability of bigger-screen TVs at decreasing prices, exhibitors need to do everything they can to distinguish the theatrical experience from what consumers can get at home.”

The exhibition holdouts (the smaller mom-and-pops, drive-ins, art houses, etc.) have issues with the conversion costs and, in the case of some, maybe a bit of technophobia.
But more and more smaller venues, which roughly may pay from $55,000 to well over $100,000 a screen to upgrade, are finding new ways to deal with the financing challenge, waiting for lower-cost digital systems. (Smaller-model digital projectors and systems tend to fall within the $55,000 to $70,000 range, but prices are coming down.)

Some theatres are trying to get local support from communities eager to save neighborhood theatres. Others are actively seeking buyers for their circuits or business, while others are going directly to the money.

Such is the case in upstate New York’s Adirondack region, where, for instance, a group of 13 theatres formed the North Country Theater Alliance, which just applied to New York’s Empire State Development office (ESD) for a grant to upgrade their cinemas. Embracing applications large and small, the ESD, which is the state’s major economic development agency, was instrumental in helping turn Manhattan’s seedy Times Square area into a spectacle-driven kind of Disneyland.

Theatres that opt to go the DIY route to upgrade to digital cinema without the assistance of an integrator like Cinedigm may not realize the full advantage of an established VPF program that allows them to recoup a portion of the digital upgrade cost, says Calcaterra. Because Cinedigm’s deployments require conversions or upgrades to DCPs that conform to the DCI specifications, qualified participating theatres can offset the high cost of digital conversion. But the theatres are on their own in working out the VFP and vendor deal points.
Besides equipment upgrades (initially offset in the VPF program), converting theatres face expenses relating to additional cooling for booths (computer-based equipment requires cooler air), ancillary equipment, service and maintenance, and the more expensive repairs that the digital set-up might require (though these are rare).

Asked what her estimate might be regarding the number of smaller theatres in the U.S. that have not yet converted or upgraded, Calcaterra guesses a “ballpark” of at least 15 percent or approximately 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. screens. Exhibitors not yet upgraded to DCP-compatible equipment are facing a deadline to take advantage of the VPF program, which officially ends in late September, although optimism abounds that the studios will extend this to Dec. 31.

As for the importance of DCP availability to Cinedigm’s own distribution services, including library-rich New Video and Indie Direct, Calcaterra says that the growth areas on the content side are for indies and alternative fare. Studio content will continue to play, no matter the technology, “but independent content can now get wider play enabled by digital distribution due to the efficiency of distribution coupled with the flexibility in programming that DC enables. Imagine programming your theatre like an iPod iTouch. You can drag and drop content easily for each screen, from features to trailers to ads. Such nimbleness provides an enormous opportunity for theatre owners to change programming easily during off-peak times (Monday through Thursday) for things like documentary evenings, action sports, or kids and family programming.”

As restored classics and alternative offerings gain a following and Hollywood and the independent world begin a long-term exclusive commitment to DCP, it appears exhibition laggards, however small, have no “alternative” but to go with the DCP flow. All signs point to a world that will inevitably turn wireless and soon be celluloid film-less.

Not that this latest format is the final stop. In the more distant future as technology continues its inexorable march, isn’t a new studio-embraced, improved format for delivery, one that will obsolesce the DCP, also inevitable? And what might be the impact of so many sparkling DCP restorations of classic films from studio vaults hitting theatres and wowing audiences? These are just a few questions FYC (for your consideration).

Part 2 of this report, focusing on DCPs and exhibitors, will appear in our October edition.