Long-Term Digital Movie Archiving Poses Challenges - InformationWeek

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Long-Term Digital Movie Archiving Poses Challenges

Hollywood is close to adopting standard technical specifications for the creation and distribution of digital films. However, one of the remaining challenges is how to store digital content so that it's easy to retrieve in the future.

Some of Hollywood's largest companies are close to adopting standard technical specifications for the creation and distribution of digital films. However, one of the remaining challenges is how to store digital content so that it's easy to retrieve in the future.

Digital Cinema Initiatives LLC in March completed the final draft of specs for delivering digital movie files from studios and distributors to theaters via cable, satellite, and hard drive. The initiative formed in 2002 as a limited partnership with members The Walt Disney Co., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox.

"The industry needs these specs to test a real, organized, networked system with multiple screens, not just have one projector in one auditorium," says Walt Ordway, chief technology officer for Digital Cinema Initiatives.

Yet archiving bunches of data-bit streams presents one of the industry's biggest technical hurdles. The industry has stored film in a climate-controlled environment, making it possible, for example, for Disney to recently redistribute the 63-year-old Bambi film on DVD and video. Redistributing historical films can be lucrative: Bill Patrizio, senior VP of strategic sourcing and procurement for The Walt Disney Co., said at a Supply Chain Council conference in Anaheim earlier this year that sales of the repackaged Bambi film had exceeded one million copies.

Digital films, however, are typically created using custom software applications that 50 years from now may not exist, or may not work on the computer systems in use at that time. When studios upgrade their operating systems and applications, they usually move older digital content to the new platform. But that archiving practice could prove problematic over many decades, as each time files are moved, the likelihood of file corruption or other types of damages and losses increases.

One solution could be emulation software, says Jeff Rothenberg, a senior computer scientist at Rand Corp. who has spent more than 15 years working with museums and libraries to archive digital files. Rothenberg suggests that the industry create an emulator program for every generation of platform used by the studios. The emulator programs would be saved on servers, along with software used to create digital films, allowing the old digital files to run on the computers of the future.

The approach would be similar to what IBM did when it introduced the IBM 360 system in the 1960s. Says Rothenberg: "IBM's previous system was widely used and it didn't want to alienate customers. Including the emulator with IBM's new system allowed customers to run their old software."

Although the archiving challenge hasn't been solved, entertainment companies continue to move their assets to digital format. Sony Pictures Entertainment in April tapped Ascent Media Group, a distribution and services company for the entertainment industry, to convert Sony's extensive film, television, and other media assets into digital format. Playboy Enterprises Inc., meanwhile, inked a deal to use North Plains Systems Corp.'s TeleScope Enterprise digital-asset management system in its magazine, television, and Web-publishing business units.

Illustration by Alicia Buelow, photo of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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