Alléne Hébert
Digital Cinema Consulting & Projects
Barcelona, Spain

Digital cinema is an emerging field often compared to a steamroller: slow to start but impossible to avoid! Following somewhat the legacy of television, the silver screen will one day make the transition from analogue to digital. Replacing film – a robust, standardized, century-old technology – is a complex process. With this transition, cinema professionals, distributors, exhibitors and audiences expect a quality level and efficiency that is equal to or surpasses what currently exists.

Since November 2004, I have embarked on an intensive investigation of the entire cinema chain, with a special focus on digital cinema. This project has taken me to various cities and events in Europe and the United States, where I have interviewed and conversed with manufacturers, researchers, associations and cinema professionals from production, through to exhibition.

The conversion from film to digital requires not only robust technological developments and viable business models, but also clear communication from the many sectors involved, as well as transparent education/training. Beyond the above, the concept of digital cinema distribution and exhibition also has clear economic, political and cultural ramifications.

What is the future of digital cinema? How will digital cinema ultimately affect the distribution and exhibition communities around the world? These are enormous questions that have been debated for the last few decades while in parallel new equipment and exciting future possibilities are taking place. This is a time for analysis and participation from all sectors that make up this ‘chain’.

Around the world various digital cinema installations are taking place, opening doors for new business models in the postproduction, distribution and exhibition sectors. Digital technologies have revolutionized both production and postproduction, and will have a great impact in cinema distribution and exhibition. Ideally, the emerging business models and technologies should both respect the existing business relationships between distributors and exhibitors that have been set in place for decades as well as foster new possibilities for access to content and programming in theatres.

When new foundations are being created, there are often times when the panorama can be confusing, thus international research and development, associations, networking, sharing of experiences and knowledge becomes of vital importance.

Digital cinema will in the future have a clear international standardization as well as the technology that replicates film’s legacy to produce and project stunning images. It is here that international standards organizations such as ITU and SMPTE take on great importance. There is also the great relevance of resolutions – HD, 2K, 4K – as well as colour spaces, compressions, security management, equipment interoperability and life span, international certification, and finally business models that have viability for all kinds of cinemas, both big and small.

Although these issues can seem overwhelming for many in the distribution and exhibition communities, it is crucial that there is feedback and participation for the future; the common goal between all sectors involved in the digital cinema future should be to design systems – technological and economic – that can have the legacy of 35mm film and offer new opportunities for content and quality levels, which directly relate to the true life force of the entire cinema chain, the audience.

With the developments of home cinema, dvds, release date windows, Internet and the continuous offers for leisure, many in the exhibition industry can feel the impact in their cinemas. Once more networks, systems and viable business models are set in place; a possible advantage of digital cinema distribution – whether via physical media, cable or in the future satellite – is the flexibility in accessing content and programming.

Like the dvd, digital cinema packages and exhibition systems can be designed to offer a variety of language and subtitle selections as well as options for the visually and/or hearing impaired.
Digital distribution could offer immense agility for screenings, and definitively opportunities for more cultural exchange of cinema within Europe and around the world.

It is impossible to come to a clear conclusion at this point in time, which for many can be understandably frustrating. We are at a cross roads and the best advice I can humbly give is to continue accumulating information and look to those pioneers around the world who are active in this conversion process.

For those who are interested in the future of digital cinema, I leave you with three ‘investigation’ areas in which continuous developments, proposals and possible future solutions are taking place:

1. Search for publications and connection to groups that are actively working for education and dissemination about these issues, like MEDIA Salles, UNIC, EDCF, IMAGO, NATO, DCI and many more associations around the world.

2. Attendance, participation or representation in international and national digital cinema events. It is here that manufacturers, associations and standards organizations are also present and available for questions and answers. These events also provide excellent networking opportunities.

3. Look to those who have demonstrated experience in funding and cinema business models. Unlike the United States, Europe currently has many markets, thus making the situation complex. Through time, with continued development and the opening of markets, there will be clearer solutions to this challenge.

This is not an easy transition, but there are many involved this emerging field who are committed to designing the future so that the magic and true power of cinema in theatres will continue.