Mainstream’s Role in Digital Cinema

A photographer’s job is to document. Whether it’s a wedding or a historic moment, many photographers have found the importance of preserving something that could otherwise be lost.

This is the story with New York based photographer Joseph O. Holmes and his new project called The Booth. It’s a simple title for his project of documenting what happens in that secret little booth behind the audience in a movie theater.

Holmes says he has always been intrigued by what happens when the lights go down. He often turns around to stare at the window in the back and imagines “the projectionist threading film into a complicated maze of wheels and sprockets, or splicing trailers and reels under the dim light of an editing table, or maybe even staring back at me from the shadowy recesses of that mysterious room marked No Admittance.”

Holmes is racing around New York and other close states to visit the dwindling number of theaters that are still using film projectors. He wants to capture a portrait of those running the reels before they’re gone forever. Featured in an article by PetaPixel, it said, “He has been rushing to complete his project as of late due to the fact that theaters across the nation are now dumping film projectors in favor of digital ones.”

satellite-uplinkMainstream Data has been on the leading edge of transferring movies digitally via our VSAT network. Theaters that use digital movies have more storage space and find the movies run smoother. Mainstream Data has built and operates the largest digital cinema network in North America. We did a Q&A with our Director of Enterprise Services, Andy Loader, to get a behind-the-scenes look at our digital cinema network and what needs to happen to get a movie up on the big screen.

Q: How long has this “digital revolution” for movie theaters been happening?

A: The idea of digital cinema began in the mid 20th century but did not gain any traction in terms of technology until the late 1990s. It was at that time digital projectors advanced to the point of displaying a high quality motion picture to the big screen. The initial projectors from Texas Instruments were sold at a premium, making it difficult for the average theater owner to afford the transition of needed digital equipment. It wasn’t until the second half of the last decade that we really saw a push in the mass migration from celluloid film play-out to digital.

Q: What are the benefits for a theater to go digital?

A:There are many benefits in going digital. The greatest benefit to the audience is a crisp, clean picture and sound that enhances the viewing experience. With a digitally mastered movie, one could run the copy a million times over and the quality would never degrade, whereas with the old celluloid tape, each pass through the projector could possibly gather dust and scratch the image. The life span of a tape copy was limited. With a digital movie file, many distribution options are also opened. Along with the FedEx or UPS delivery option, one could send a large file over terrestrial networks such as fiber optic connections capable of high speed throughputs. As high speed terrestrial connections continue to expand and are not in many areas of the country/world, a fantastic alternative is to distribute over high speed satellite networks which have coverage over large geographic areas.

Q:Are there any drawbacks for a theater to go digital?

A:Theaters may encounter individual challenges to implement digital cinema, but the universal drawback is associated with cost. Like any new technology, the price for the digital equipment (mainly projectors) was very high to start and only the large exhibitors could afford such an idea. Over the last decade, prices in digital equipment have slowly come down, but still present a challenge to the smaller chains. Theaters will continue to migrate to digital technology as they can afford it, but in the not too distant future, anyone who has not made the transition will be cut off from any new content, as the production end will cease to replicate copies of a movie onto celluloid tape.

Q: How many theaters do we currently service?

A: As of 1/1/2013, Mainstream has 1,112 theater locations (roughly 8000 screens) on our satellite network. We expect this network to continue growing by roughly 250 new theater installations per year.

Q: Who else benefits from the digital transfer of movies?

A:There are many entities that benefit from digital distribution. For companies like Technicolor, they only need to replicate a few hard drives and ship to one location (Mainstream), rather than replicating over 1,000 drives and shipping to that many individual locations across the US and Canada. On the theater side, digital distribution eliminates the hassle of receiving, storing, and returning large numbers of hard drives each week. There is also less physical handling of the movie setup for the theater projectionist. Rather than running tape or inserting a drive for library ingestion, the movie will automatically appear in their schedule list once the digital distribution is complete.

Q:What do we do on our end to make everything run smoothly?

A:It is our goal to make digital satellite distribution look easy to our customer, but the truth is there remains a daily grind by a few individuals to keep the network running at an optimal level. It is up to Mainstream to install and maintain the satellite equipment at each theater location. This in and of itself involves field technician management, hardware logistics, quality assurance, and a complicated accounting process. There is a lot of head-end preparation work completed each week before we send any feature content included database management, RFTP script updating, and field service support of individual sites having reception difficulties. We have several tests we run during the week to assure all head-end equipment continues to operate as expected, and address potential problems before large movie files are sent. During the actual file distribution, we are always on high alert, monitoring all systems very closely to assure any anomaly is caught and addressed quickly. After the movie content is distributed, we collect all statistical reports generated from theater locations to assure the file was received entirely. In cases of sites that failed to receive any portion of the file for whatever reason, we either retransmit the missing file portions, or have a copy shipped there on a hard drive. We pride ourselves on a very high success ratio in our satellite distribution, minimizing the need for any manual distribution.

Q:What role did Mainstream Data play in this digital revolution?

A:Mainstream Data is among the frontrunners of digital cinema distribution by satellite. Our distribution network and relationship with Technicolor began by filling their requirement to distribute pre-show content. This content includes local and national on-screen advertising that is viewed prior to a movie beginning. As we began building a theater network with this advertising premise, and as mastering of digital content became more efficient, it soon became economical for Technicolor to utilize this same site footprint to distribute full feature movies as well. We sent our first test feature in June of 2007 to a site in Belgium, of all places. Though not recorded anywhere I am aware of, this may have been the very first full-feature movie delivered to a big screen over satellite in history.


Q:How many years have we been involved in digitizing movies?

A:Our role in digital cinema has historically been related to the reliable distribution of the digital content over satellite. We first began our relationship with Technicolor in early 2005 by distributing pre-show content. Because of our talent, dedication, and unparalleled customer service, this relationship continued to evolve into meeting the needs for full feature distribution beginning in 2007. We have since enhanced our services and technologies and have successfully delivered hundreds of movies to theaters across the US and Canada.

Interested in learning more about our satellite technology services? Get in touch with us.