Manohar, a movie-projector attendant at Fame Malad, a multiplex in one of Mumbai’s suburbs wasn’t impressed when he first saw a demonstration of digital cinema by UFO Moviez Ltd, a company vending the technology. The pictures were fuzzy, the sound was impure, and when the temperature inside the machine touched 50 degrees, it tripped.
Then, at a press conference in January, Manohar’s employer, Shravan Shroff, announced that Shringar Cinemas Ltd, which runs Fame Cinemas, had bought a digital projector for a screen in Malad. It wasn’t from UFO. The projector cost Rs45 lakh, over six times the price of UFO’s equipment, and contained a ‘digital light processing’ (DLP) chip from Texas Instruments, making it “truly” digital, according to the company.
UFO and Texas Instruments Inc are on a mission to convert screens and create an established digital standard in India; each wants to do it before the other company does. The two systems vary hugely in price, and have vastly different delivery advantages.
Digital cinema has several things going for it: Producers do not need to transport reels of film across the country as data is transferred instantly, either through satellite, cable, or a hard disk; it opens up other revenue streams too, namely digital in-theatre advertising, which is cheaper to create and doesn’t wear off after multiple viewings; also, it is an effective way of fighting piracy.
“What I’m hearing in India now is ‘when do we go digital?’” says Nancy Fares, manager, DLP Cinema, Texas Instruments. DLP Cinema calls itself a market-development arm, and it persuades theatre owners to choose its version of digital cinema. Prospective buyers, once convinced, approach high-end theatre projection companies who buy the DLP chip and sell theatre owners the package.
In India, 12,000 screens have for long lived with film reels, but there are signs of a shift. Since its inception in 2005, UFO has converted over 550 screens, and executives are confident of converting at least 1,500 more by March 2008. Meanwhile, high-end digital projector manufacturers, such as Christie Digital Systems Inc. have sold a handful of projectors. It helps that UFO has found favour with prominent Indian film-makers, including Yash Chopra, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rakesh Roshan. It equips theatre halls in cities, towns and even in remote districts with a low-cost digital projector linked to a satellite receiver, enabling theatres to screen movies on the release day without waiting weeks for a scratchy movie print handed down from the cities. This limits piracy too.
“Sometimes, I get miserable when the movie doesn’t download properly,” says Farokh, the manager of Palace Cinema in Mumbai’s Byculla area. “But when it works, the entire theatre is bright. It’s beautiful.” Besides his regular projector, Farokh keeps a UFO projector for movies not available on film. Other Mumbai theatres do this too. After an initial deposit of Rs2 lakh for the equipment, UFO charges theatre owners according to how often they use it. The length of the movie determines how much theatre owners pay per show, usually no more than Rs250.
But according to international digital cinema guidelines formed by the US-based Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), while the technology that Fame purchased meets the necessary DCI specifications, and is called d-cinema, what UFO vends is e-cinema. IDCI was formed by the six largest studios in Hollywood.
In March 2002, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, and Warner Bros Studios established the norms for digital cinema. To be called ‘digital’, theatres have to install projectors of a particular resolution and which run on a DLP chip, and have to use a particular file compression technique called JPEG2000. In effect, any theatre using digital projection equipment that is not DCI compliant will not be given movies from those studios.
A standard format allows a movie to be seen the way it was meant, with little, if any, visual distortion. “Because of the worldwide standard, you can export a movie from India to the UK, where it will play perfectly on a d-screen,” says Fares. “That is the benefit, to share content across wider boundaries.” Fame has purchased one such projector. And Adlabs is currently testing one at its Metro theatre.
UFO’s projectors are of 1.3k resolution, far below the 2k resolution DCI stipulates. The company also uses MPEG4 compression technology, which makes digital movie files smaller than 10 gigabytes (compared with 300-400GB on the JPEG2000 system). Critics point out that this level of compression may lead to data loss, and that it shows during action scenes.
Sanjay Gaikwad, executive director and CEO, UFO Moviez, however, says that the compression technique works well, and that data loss is minimal. “All this techno-jargon is from people who want to create unnecessary confusion in the market. The reality is that beyond a certain resolution, the eye cannot define more detail,” he says. “Experts from Europe saw UFO’s product and said there is no perceivable difference between this and DCI standards.”
Tan Ngaronga, chief operating officer of Sathyam Cinemas, a multiplex in Chennai, saw both systems before choosing d-cinema. While two of his screens are already DCI-compliant, the rest will be ready by June. He could tell the difference. “The picture’s okay,” Tan says of UFO. “Joe Average won’t recognize it. But our customers will. I think it’s a good option for regional cinema.” He says that d-cinema is expensive, but that it is the future. “There’s a lot of resistance about d-cinema, and it is related to the price,” he says. “A decent projector will cost you anywhere from $100,000 to $120,000. But we believe that d-cinema projectors provide a much higher quality than anything else.”
Shroff says that in the three months since he converted to d-cinema in Malad, “the experience has been outstanding.”
People don’t understand the difference, according to Ranjit Thakur, director, MRH Digital Systems Pvt Ltd, the agent for Christie in India. “2k means two million pixels on a screen. 1.3k isn’t even half that quality.” Gaikwad says it is “an accepted fact” that DCI is “over-designed, a very heavy standard, is not commercially viable, and that it will fail in the long run.”
Gaikwad says that people believe the answer lies with UFO. “Once I achieve critical mass, Hollywood will look at our network. You cannot ignore 4,000-5,000 screens across the world.” In January, at a meeting to announce $22 million in funding from the venture capitalists 3i, Onkar S. Kanwar, UFO’s chairman (he runs Apollo Tyres Ltd, one of India’s largest tyre makers), said the company would eventually head west.
Films from DCI member studios accounted for 80% of the $9.5 billion box office collection in the US in 2006. Nineteen of the top 20 movies came from these studios. The movies went digital in a big way last year. In 2005, there were 848 digital cinema screens worldwide, according to the Motion Picture Authority of America. Last year there were 2,996. Meanwhile, UFO representatives travel to Europe this week to convert over 350 multiplex screens beginning in June.