Sony Pushes Better Cinema Through Digital

Sony is generally perceived as the market leader in video. But when it comes to digital cinema, the company has a lot of catching up to do. Its main competitor, Texas Instruments, supplies the underlying projection technology used by several manufacturers, and T.I. technology is now in about 15 times as many digital screens as Sony’s is. But Sony is on a tear, bundling its 4K SXRD Digital Cinema technology with ancillary services into what it says is a superior product. The company thinks it can increase 4K’s penetration from its current 300 screens to 3,000 within the next two years.

T.I.’s system creates an image with just 2.2 million pixels, or 6.6 percent more resolution than a home high definition screen. Sony’s 4K system creates an image with four times that resolution, or 8.8 million pixels. The difference, Sony argues, is a sharper, more pristine image, with deeper contrast and richer colors. Sony’s system is also closer to film resolution, which cinematographers feel is roughly equivalent to 6K.

Of course, this technology does not come cheap (which is one reason that digital theaters often charge premium prices). While companies won’t quote prices (for competitive reasons, and because they may cut better deals with certain customers), Sony says that its digital projection hardware costs about 10 to 15 percent more than the T.I. system, and two to three times as much as traditional film projectors.

The company argues that, when amortized over time, the added cost is not so great, compared to the benefits for the theater owner: fewer breakdowns, automated operation, and increased customer satisfaction thanks to the superior image quality.

While few film fans know (or care) what type of film projector a theater uses, Sony says that its images are so good, filmgoers will seek them out. It will market SXRD to consumers by creating a logo to plug the technology along with the movie. So just as Dolby Digital or THX sound are advertised on movie screens, expect to soon see an SXRD Digital Cinema logo as well.

The company’s technology will be on show next week in one of its most ambitious installations, a new 14-screen all-digital complex built by Muvico, a Florida exhibitor, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The theater provides stadium seating and valet parking.

The company could have a big impact here because, as a Muvico executive said at the press premiere on Tuesday, “customers in Thousand Oaks stay to watch a film’s credits because their names are probably in them.” If those in “the industry” like what they see, the bigwigs could press to have their films shot and exhibited digitally.

The digital films are delivered on individual hard drives and either fed directly to one projector or downloaded to a secure server for streaming to multiple screens. Sony constantly monitors each projector’s health remotely, and can send help or advisories if a projector goes down or a bulb is nearing the end of its life.

The 10-minute demo reel shown on Tuesday did look stunning. As with any digital cinema system, there was no jutter, or jumping of the image, because film was not running through a projector gate. The colors were indeed rich with a perceived wide contrast range, increasing the sense of resolution.

The pictures also looked impressive because the test material was shot using 4K digital video cameras. According to Mike Fidler, Sony’s senior vice president for digital cinema solutions, Sony’s film studio will increase the number of its titles that will be shot in 4K over the coming year.

The company’s 4K systems will go in all new Muvico complexes and eventually replace film projectors in its existing theaters. Sony has also installed systems in a number of AMC theaters and expects orders for more.

But Sony’s technology is likely to make strong gains only if it is significantly better looking than the Texas Instruments competition and if it looks qualitatively better than HDTV. With every advancement made in the quality of the TV images one can see at home, it becomes that much harder to persuade customers to shell out what can easily be $100 for a family’s night out at the movies.

By Eric A. Taub, The New York Times