Small Town Theatres Trying Digital Cinema To Earn Big Bucks

Mumbai: | Updated: Nov 17 2003, 05:30am hrs
Cinema theatres in smaller towns across the country are carrying out an experiment in distribution of movies on digital format.

The conversion requires installation of digital projectors. The theatres will also require a server. The feature film will be stored in a high-capacity disk drive and be digitally encrypted.

India is a good market for digital distribution of movies. Majority of the theatres have old equipment and the quality is poor. Digital equipment gives better quality and is reasonably priced, says Real Image Media Technologies director Senthil Kumar.

The benefits are obvious. There will be substantial savings in print costs, when you release digitally. The wider release possible with digital and the encryption of content will help control piracy. The result: more revenues to the legitimate rights holders.

Says Mr Kumar: India spends about Rs 300 crore per year on film prints and there are about 9,000 theatres in the country today. At an average cost of about Rs 18 lakh per theatre, converting the entire country to digital projection will pay off in six years from the print savings alone.

The digital distribution companies, however, have decided to go in for a lower cost model. Time Cinemas, a joint venture between Tips, Venus, Bharat Shahs Mega Bollywood, Time, Baba, Tilak and Prachar, offers the entire system at Rs 4.5 lakh. The Mukta Arts-Adlabs technology will require Rs 10 lakh investment per theatre.

We could have gone in for three-chip DLP projectors, which would have given better quality. But the cost would have increased by over $3,000 per projector. The market is not ready for such investments. Once the concept is accepted and if the screen is larger, we will go in for such projectors, said Adlabs promoter Manmohan Shetty.

Agrees Time Cinemas managing director Dhiraj Shah, There is no need for high-end equipment in India. We have to offer cost-effective business models.

Time Cinemas has gone in for LCD projectors using liquid crystal displays. The LCD projectors may have a limited brightness; they have traditionally suffered from problems of smear, lag or ghosting in the image when objects on the screen move. They have also had issues with the contrast level being too low. But, as Mr Kumar says, some manufacturers like Sanyo and InFocus have solved many of these problems. Time Cinemas uses Proxima projectors, made by InFocus, Norway.

However, all LCD projectors have an inherent problem of aging of the LCD panels which gives them an effective life of only two to three years. Says Mr Shah, You will have to change the lamps from time to time. The life of the bulb is 1200 to 1500 hours. The bulb needs to be replaced after that.

The Mukta Arts-Adlabs single-chip DLP projectors, in contrast, uses the digital micro-mirror device (DMD) from Texas Instruments. Single-chip projectors use a single DMD device with a colour wheel in front, through which the light passes. The colour wheel allows the projector to form red, green and blue images on-screen and the human eye fuses these three colours to see it as one picture. They do not produce very good colour saturation. It is better to use three-chip DPL projectors. But these cost upward of Rs 10 lakh, going up to Rs 80 lakh for the top-of-the-line digital cinema models, says Mr Kumar.

Mukta-Adlabs Digital Projection uses a high quality server from a Singapore company called GDC. Time Cinemas has adopted a small MPEG player, which outputs a standard PAL television signal. Adtech Digital, USA, is manufacturing the servers for them. If we reduce the compression, the quality suffers. For recording at 15 mbps per second up to two films, the quality is good. We will be using this to record new films, says Mr Shah.

But are theatre owners willing to make the investments Very few theatres are putting in the money. We have taken most of the theatres on fixed hire basis, says Mr Shetty. Time Cinemas, however, feels that it is important for the theatre owners to invest. It is in their interest to do so. This way, they can get release of recent movies into their theatres, draw back the crowd, and increase revenues, says Mr Shah.

Mukta-Adlabs expects to update 400 B-class theatres across the country by the end of this fiscal. Time Cinemas hopes to reach out to 160 theatres. The growth will be in Maharashtra and the Hindi belt.

Is there scope for a satellite form of digital distribution Although this will require huge investments, it will provide a larger footprint, better quality, and increase in revenues. The biggest advantage: it will be used in bigger cities too, which the current low-end storage-enabled system does not cater to.

Says Mr Kumar, Once there are over a 100 digital theatres, satellite delivery of movies as encrypted data files to the theatre would become viable economically. However, this is only to do with delivery, while the playback server and the projector still remain the most important parts of the equation. Delivery can easily switch over time from being on DVD-ROM or small hard disk to satellite without any problems.