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Blockbuster Beaming

by Curt Tilly

Digital movies are radically changing the 100-year-old processes and workflow of the current motion picture industry. As the number of digital theatres increases, and more technically sophisticated presentations such as 3-D features and High Definition events are delivered to these theaters, a cost-effective method for digital delivery could be put in place. Cost savings and scalability can be achieved through the implementation of non-traditional electronic workflow tactics and alternative digital delivery of content.

Digital Delivery
Today, the primary method of digital delivery to theaters is hard-drive duplication and delivery. This process essentially replaces the method of duplicating and shipping 35mm film. With the early rollout of digital cinema and the relatively small number of digital theatres, this method of delivering content was familiar to the industry and originally proved to be robust and cost-effective.

However, this traditional method of digital delivery is not very scalable. In the theatre, when a hard-drive arrives, a projectionist has to be on site to accept delivery and then loads the content into the digital system in the theatre. As the number of digital theatres continues to grow, the process of physical delivery faces increasing challenges of tracking, loading and verifying content. In addition there are the increased distribution expenses, as each new theatre requires a hard-drive that needs to be duplicated and shipped.

The Promise of Satellite
The positive side of satellite delivery of content is that it promises a more scalable and cost-effective way of delivering movies into theatres. Satellite content distribution is, by nature, a multicast-enabled process, which allows content to be loaded once and distributed to multiple locations. More importantly, as sites are added to a satellite network, the cost per site decreases.

With over 25 movies delivered in the past three years, Microspace has been working with studios and theatre owners to help develop and implement a solution that meets the unique requirements of security, reliability and accountability. Important issues that the industry requires.

Downlink Details
Paramount’s release, “The Heartbreak Kid” provides an excellent example of the process and workflow of delivering digital movies to theatres.

The first step in the process of delivering is to insure the digital content that is delivered to Microspace is complete and accurate. In today’s process, Microspace received the encrypted Digital Cinema Package (DCP) of “Heartbreak Kid” via hard-drive.

In the future, this initial package will arrive at Microspace via fiber or satellite. In the past year, DCP sizes have ranged from 60GB to over 220GB. The file size depends primarily on the length of the feature as well as the compression method used.

“Heartbreak Kid” fell squarely in the middle of this range. To verify that the content on the “Heartbreak Kid” DCP delivered to Microspace was accurate, our engineers loaded the DCP and ran checks on the size of the package as well as a validity check on the contents of the drive with a hash check. This process involved essentially ensuring the digital fingerprint of the contents for accuracy as it was packaged. It is important to note that the DCP remained encrypted through these checks as well as the entire VELOCITY® delivery process.

Microspace engineers used Kencast’s Fazzt® software for reliable delivery of digital cinema content via satellite. The next stage includes packaging the validated “Heartbreak Kid” content for IP encapsulation including the addition of forward-error-correction (FEC) within Fazzt. The output of the Kencast technology involves an IP multicast stream which is then fed into a multi-protocol-encapsulator (MPE) for MPEG-2. The MPEG-2 output from the MPE encapsulators goes directly into the transmit chain of the VELOCITY DVB satellite system making for an efficient process.

Security and Reliability Delivered
The VELOCITY DVB system is configured to provide a base availability of 99.95 percent into 1.0-m antennas in most of North America. The additional FEC of Kencast further boosts this availability number to over 99.99 percent, and engineers run detailed link budgets for each theatre location to ensure availability requirements are achieved. Each theatre has a primary and backup satellite antenna looking as Velocity systems on two separate satellites. Additionally, each theatre has a terrestrial backchannel to further close the loop and provide verification of receiving the DCP.

Once in the theatre, the “Heartbreak Kid” DCP was run though a final validation to ensure the package was accurate. Then the content was made ready to be received by either the theatre library server or screen server. The final content moves over gigabit Ethernet, with the movie then ready for playback. Theatres booked for “Heartbreak Kid” then matched the DCP up with the appropriate keys and equipment for playback. The total time for the entire process was just under 16 hours, which is a significant improvement over the traditional physical duplication and delivery of hard-drives to theatres.

Moving into the Future
Microspace learned many early lessons in digital cinema. However, the basics of what make satellite delivery effective for so many other mission-critical industries also proves it ideal for delivery of digital movies.

Security, reliability and the ability to cost-effectively deliver content to a large number of geographically diverse locations will continue to push the movement of electronic distribution. Because of this efficiency, the hundred-year-old processes relating to physical delivery will eventually be eliminated, and all involved are certainly the benefactors.

Author Biography
Curt Tilly has been working in the satellite communications field for over 17 years. His efforts during the past three years have been dedicated exclusively to the digital cinema market for Microspace Communication Corporation, based out of North Carolina. Curt has an engineering degree from North Carolina State University and is currently pursuing his MBA.