Movie Making Manual/Digital Cinema Distribution

This Module is part of the Movie Making Manual

What is Digital Cinema Distribution


Digital Cinema Distribution is all about getting movies from the producers to the viewers using new digital technology instead of old celluloid technology. It will involve watching movies projected by digital projectors (many find the term video having inappropriate connotations when discussing theatrical motion pictures) instead of from 35mm film.



The major Hollywood studios agreed a standard in mid 2005, and it is expected to become widespread during the following three-to-five years.

Image and Sound quality


Images will be projected using either a 2k or 4k resolution. The digital picture will be free from dust and scratches, and movies originated digitally at high enough resolution (current examples being the Star Wars prequels and 3D animations such as those made by Pixar) will show no grain.

Sound will change little from the digital surround found across the developed world, except that it will not be prone to the drop-out and pops common at reel changes.

Business Implications


Currently a large amount of the cost involved in getting a film to the cinema is the production and shipping of 35mm film prints. This cost, along with the cost of promotion and marketing, is borne by the Distributor, and is known as the Prints and Advertising cost (P&A). With digital distribution all that is moved is a multi-gigabyte file (provided by the producer) containing picture and sound, so costs are dramatically reduced. This cost reduction is the main reason the change will occur, since most cinema-goers seem satisfied with the current technology.

Furthermore, digital technology has been shown to consistently reduce in cost over a relatively short time compared with mechanical technology (i.e. celluloid projectors). Consequently, it will become cheaper and easier to set up small cinemas over the coming years.

This has led to speculation that the nature of the business will change, including the probable flourishing of specialist exhibitors and small low-cost distributors. Coming as it does in concert with the widespread availability of movie-making equipment and the associated surge in movie-making, there is likely to be a fragmentation of the market, with greater niche exhibition outlets.

The Internet


The fast transmission of files across the internet leads to great fears of piracy of digital movies, and no provision has been made in the standard for the transportation of the authored movie file. Distributors will use whatever means necessary (including perhaps physical transportation of discs) to minimise piracy.

With greater bandwidth increases there is also the possibility of electronic distribution of movies across the internet, which may threaten traditional theatrical exhibition. This is currently seen as a niche, but companies like wikipedia:Filmbay are already adressing this.



The current standard requires that a feature must be authored into a single file, much as a DVD is. This file will contain not only the picture and sound media, but also additional soundtracks for countries outside the producer's own. When installed into a cinema's dedicated server, the exhibitor will ensure the correct combination of soundtrack and subtitles will be played for the audience. The exhibitor may put on a showing for hearing-impaired cinemagoers and allow the subtitles for the hard of hearing to be displayed.

A dedicated link to a central database allows the distributor to monitor how many times a film has been played, and with what soundtracks. Metadata embedded in the stream allow for automated dimming of lights and drawing of curtains.

The standard allows back-and-forward compatibility with 2k and 4k picture resolutions, intending to allay the fears of cinema owners worrying that buying the available 2k equipment will find themselves in need of a further upgrade.

Current digital cinema system specification: Digital Cinema Initiatives Version 1.2 Technical System Specification Sheet (March 7, 2008)

For the stereoscopic-3D digital cinema system specification addendum: Digital Cinema Initiatives Version 1.0 Stereoscopic Digital Cinema Addendum (July 11, 2007)

For comparison, see the archived specification: Digital Cinema Initiatives Version 1.1 Technical System Specification Sheet (April 12, 2007)