Digital Film Distribution: Coming to a Theater Near You?

According to CyberStar L.P., the world's first satellite-broadcast distribution of high-definition, all-digital motion-picture content to a movie theater was successfully conducted last week at the Cannes Film Festival. The company, which is a provider of broadband services developed by Loral Space & Communications, teamed with independent film producers/distributors Wavelength Releasing and digital film-server manufacturer QuVIS to distribute and show two short films: the Academy Award-winning Bunny, directed by Chris Wedge, and Protest, directed by S.D. Katz. Audiences viewed both films at Cannes' eCinema exhibition at the Palais Miramar on May 18-20.

Satellite distribution could become significant in the future (see previous article), because it offers an extremely economical alternative to the substantial cost that movie studios currently incur to duplicate and ship film prints to theaters. Movie studios pay approximately $3000 for each copy of a 35mm film. If a film opens nationally in 2500 theaters across the US, the studio pays more than $7.5 million in duplication costs alone, even before shipping costs.

According to CyberStar, distributing the same film by satellite requires no duplicate prints at all. A single digital copy of the film can be made and transmitted to an almost limitless number of cinemas in a single broadcast. And by encrypting the broadcast, satellite transmission can even provide a level of security far greater than that of physical film, which can be stolen and pirated.

"With these screenings, CyberStar, QuVIS, and Wavelength have ushered in the next big step in film distribution with the first end-to-end solution for all-digital, high-definition film," says Ron Maehl, president of CyberStar. "We think this presentation team even has a shot at the grand prize at Cannes for 'excellence in the next generation of film distribution.'"

For this week's screenings, Wavelength provided the high-definition tapes of Protest and Bunny to QuVIS, who then recorded the content to its server. QuVIS brought its server to CyberStar's Rockville, Maryland uplink facility, where the content was transmitted to the company's office in Europe. The data were then recorded and stored on a second QuVIS server, which was taken to the Cannes theater and interfaced to a DPI projector for playback.