Spring Technology

It wasn't so long ago that deliverables -- the final copies of a movie that are distributed to theaters -- were synonymous with film prints. Then digital cinema came along, and more recently, 3D. Now theatrical deliverables are a combination of film prints and digital media with various technical specifications.

For international day-and-date releases (as far as tentpoles are concerned) the process of creating, managing and distributing these versions is astonishingly complex, and even more so when it comes to 3D releases like the monster May opener from DreamWorks Animation, Shrek Forever After.

The issue with 3D is that it doesn't represent just one additional version of the movie. The various 3D projection systems created by such companies as Dolby, Master Image, RealD, Xpand and Imax have different technical needs and therefore demand a whole range of versions. Add to that dubbed and subtitled foreign-language editions for each system, and the number of extra versions can be overwhelming.

"We have the same or tighter delivery timelines," says Ahmad Ouri, chief marketing officer at Technicolor, "and the number of deliverables are going up."

Nowhere was the complexity of these deliverables more apparent than with Avatar. More than 100 versions of Avatar were created, color-timed at different light levels, even with different aspect ratios, all planned for individual theater configurations. This result was made possible by a remarkable effort by Fox, Lightstorm and key suppliers, notably Modern VideoFilm and Deluxe.

"What Avatar demonstrated is, you can deliver day-and-date at a larger scale than ever before," notes Jim Whittlesey, senior vp operations and technology at Deluxe Digital Cinema. But at a larger cost, too.

When the digital cinema push began a decade ago, studios had an eye on the elimination of film prints as a way to save money. That was especially important as movies started opening on ever-more screens, meaning that studios had to pay millions of dollars for enough prints to launch a Spider-Man or Dark Knight across the world.

But today, the market continues to require 35mm film prints -- and hard drives and files sent via satellite. "And we are preparing to deliver via fiber and broadband soon," says Rick O'Hare, senior vp at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group.

What this means is that, even as the major distributors are working around the world to help movie theaters go digital, the savings could be quite a while in coming.

"We believe there is a long tail for this transitional period," Technicolor's Ouri says. "It's going to become more complex before it simmers down."

"That is part of the incremental cost for us," DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg says. "We now have a higher degree of complexity needed to put the right version of the movie in the right system in each theater. Logic would say there will be consolidation. But this is really the infancy of the platform, so it is difficult to predict."

New 3D systems could complicate the matter even more. One new version is Technicolor's 3D film format, which was used for the first time for Katzenberg's How to Train Your Dragon and has roughly 200 domestic installations.

Ouri says other 3D projection systems, some with 4K resolution (four times the picture information found in today's commonly used 2K digital projection systems), might at some point mean still more versions are needed.

So what's the good news? At least one issue, "ghostbusting" -- an extra post processing task that reduces or eliminates faint shadows around some images -- is getting resolved. So far, deliverables for the RealD format have required the ghostbusting postproduction process, while Dolby, Xpand and Master Image systems have required non-ghostbusted media. But RealD has been working to change this.

"I don't think we are going to see too many more, if any, new 3D releases that will require ghostbusting -- which makes our job a lot easier," Whittlesey says.

But that's just one of the many variants that must be resolved. To help streamline the process, Whittlesey says establishing standard industry practices is crucial. Like figuring out light levels.

"We have to figure out how to get to standard light levels for 3D," he says. "It is still a little bit Wild West right now."

DreamWorks Animation's movies illustrate the light problem. "The 3D version (of a movie such as Shrek Forever After) is timed differently from the 2D version," says Katzenberg, referring to the "color timing" process. "We know there is going to be diminution of light because people are looking through polarized lenses. So you have to overcompensate. It is considerably different in the color-timing than the flat version."

Beyond such problems, the shift to digital may be helped by the creation of a "universal file" or a master version of the deliverable readable by all theaters' technologies. A universal file could also accommodate multiple versions of a movie, including foreign-language editions and ones with various aspect ratios. Theaters would be able to extract the particular version they need.

"It is possible to have one version, with all subtitling, in one package in one hard drive," Whittlesey says. "But probably it will (come) down to five or six different packages that we ship around the world."

By Carolyn Giardina, The Hollywood Reporter