Satellite Delivery of Feature Films Debuts

When the movie Bounce bounced off a communications satellite and into the AMC Empire Theatre in New York's Times Square earlier this month, it marked the first use of a satellite to deliver a feature film to a theater in high-resolution digital cinema format.

Bounce was transmitted to the theater as a pilot project by a new unit of the satellite systems division of Seattle-based The Boeing Co. The unit, Cinema Connexion by Boeing, plans to use its expertise in satellite technology, including encryption and compression, to dramatically change the distribution of movies, as well as presentations of sporting and other high-profile events. Mark Gill, president of Miramax Films Corp. in Los Angeles, called the satellite delivery of Bounce a "landmark day for the movie business - the beginning of a better way to distribute motion pictures."

Long Time Coming

Rick King, head of corporate communications at Kansas City, Missouri-based AMC Entertainment Inc., which owns the Empire Theatre, said it took approximately 10 hours to transmit Bounce because of the large size of the compressed file - about 50GB. However, he noted, when the system becomes commercially available next year, transmission time won't matter "because in the 10 hours it took to go to one theater, you could send the same movie to 2,000 theatres" using the satellite feed, King said.

That fits in with Boeing's plans, according to David Baker, co-director of the Cinema Connexion unit, which wants to set up a "global distribution system" for digital cinema. Boeing plans to roll out the system in stages starting in the second quarter of next year, in collaboration with Topeka, Kansas-based QuVis Inc., which supplies the video servers and compression technology.

These servers will feed projectors developed by the digital imaging division of Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. Boeing also plans to set up a network operations center in Hollywood to encode and secure films before transmitting them from an on-site uplink, Baker added.

The economics of digital delivery will help drive its adoption, according to both Boeing and film industry sources. King said it costs roughly US$2,000 for each print, and a spokesman for GC Cos. in Chestnut Hill, Mass., estimated that shipping costs for each film physically delivered to a theater is $300. Baker said this works out to annual distribution costs of about $1.2 billion for the movie industry, a sum he said could be cut to around $500 million with satellite delivery.

Asked to assess the quality of the digital version of Bounce compared with 35mm film, King said that in his view, "it's better than film. It has increased clarity," especially as the feature continues its run over the holiday season. Repeated showings of a film result in deterioration, King explained, whereas a digital movie retains the same quality, regardless of the number of showings.

Bob Rast, vice president of business development at Dolby Laboratories Inc. in San Francisco and chairman of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers' digital cinema committee, agreed. "With digital cinema, you are seeing a pristine image every time you go to the theater . . . especially as there are varying qualities of release prints. I think [this technology] is very competitive with film."

But Dave Dawson, director of technology at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in Los Angeles, said that although digital cinema technology is good, it can be improved.

"We do not believe digital cinema has reached its peak," Dawson said. "We want to work on standards that will provide an enhanced theatrical experience."

Ian McMurray, a spokesman for TI's digital imaging division, said the company believes it can meet the MPAA's requirements for improved quality.

"We're still working with prototypes," he said. "We are continuing to develop the technology, and we know we can make it better."

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