Star Wars Tests The Digital Cinema Supply Chain

A Brooklyn, N.Y., movie theater is showing Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge Of The Sith, in its native digital format, with help from Access Integrated Technologies, a company that's working to digitize Hollywood's supply chain.
Shortly after the stroke of midnight on May 19, the words beginning with "Chapter 3..." began their slow crawl from the bottom of movie screens across the country. At 12:01 a.m., and not a second before, a small IT operations center perched several flights of stairs above a darkened auditorium in Brooklyn's Pavilion Theatre dropped its digital payload on an audience hungry for acrobatic light-saber duels, intergalactic dogfights, and an epic showdown between the Force and the Dark Side. And so began the long-awaited national release of Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge Of The Sith, a movie created entirely as digital video.

In the Pavilion's main projection room, a celluloid projector sat dormant. Beside it, a newer Christie Digital Systems Inc. digital model cranked out the images, delivered in data packets, fed from a Doremi Labs Inc. media player. These devices shared the improvised IT room with a library server running on a Stratus Technologies Windows-based fault-tolerant server, which the theater uses to organize its content much the way many of the teens in the theater below build playlists on their iPods.

For Access Integrated Technologies Inc., Sith isn't just the next chapter in the Star Wars saga, it's the latest test of a digital supply chain the company believes will change the way movies are transported from Hollywood's back lots to neighborhood cinemas worldwide. While some movies are already shot and shown using digital technology, AccessIT is looking to digitize the middle part of the supply chain.

Studios and theater owners are getting on board with the vision, which has a high up-front price tag but will pay off in the long term, Russell Wintner, AccessIT's president and chief operating officer, said Wednesday night prior to the Star Wars premiere. Whereas a celluloid projector might start at $35,000, an initial investment in digital technology would cost $80,000, he said, adding: "It's 100-year-old technology versus brand-new technology, but the studios are willing to pay for the paradigm shift."

Savings could be significant for the movie industry, according to a May 12 report issued by investment research firm J.M. Dutton & Associates LLP. "Converting a major portion of the first- and second-run theaters to digital files, over a period of years, would save on the order of three-quarters of a billion dollars in physical product and create a market of about $250 million to be served by AccessIT," the report said. This is based upon about 200 major Motion Picture Association releases per year and the assumption that the average major theatrical release goes to an average of 5,000 domestic prints and maybe another 7,000 internationally.

Beyond simply receiving and showing movies, AccessIT offers a suite of software that manages the theatrical distribution process, automates delivery of movies from distributors to cinemas, and acts as a sort of enterprise-resource-planning application for these cinemas. While digital movies can be delivered to theaters over fiber networks or distributed on hard drives, the content can also be beamed to theaters such as the Pavilion via satellite.

AccessIT even sells the satellite dishes, transmission equipment, and services, thanks to last year's acquisitions of FiberSat Global Services LLC and Boeing Digital Cinema. The company has at least 24 theater clients that receive digital content via satellite, says Suzanne Tregenza, the company's manager of corporate communications.

The goal is to create packaged software, hardware appliances, and services that don't require much care and feeding by a theater's staff. Each digital projector in the theater has an IP address so it can communicate directly with the media server. Movies are transmitted over IP in packets and assembled as files on the backend. The latest Star Wars movie, for example, exists digitally as an 80-Gbyte file.

When problems arise, AccessIT's support staff can help troubleshoot, says AccessIT chief technology officer Jeff Butkovsky. "We can come in remotely from our [network operations center]," he says.

While some of the kinks in the technology still have to be worked out, and it's uncertain whether investments in digital cinema will have much impact on box-office tallies, Hollywood is hoping the Force is with them. Star Wars: Episode III is the 13th movie AccessIT has delivered digitally. The next will be Madagascar, due in theaters on May 27.

Editor's Choice
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
Roger Burkhardt, Capital Markets Chief Technology Officer, Broadridge Financial Solutions
Shane Snider, Senior Writer, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author