Is Christie’s New Patent a Theatrical Lifeline or Another Nail in the Coffin?
We’ve been covering the dire circumstances surrounding commercial cinemas here at Cineluxe for some time. From the slow and methodical release-date pushback of summer blockbusters, to the eventual anemic, dismal rollout of Tenet here in the States (where I personally rented out an entire theater to watch it), to the numerous direct-to-streaming releases, to the PVOD experimentation by various studios, to Disney’s subscription-within-a-subscription trial with Mulan, to the nearly complete evaporation of any Christmas blockbuster releases—which ultimately led Regal Cinemas (the second largest chain in the US) to shutter all its cinemas in the US and UK, and then AMC (the largest chain in the States) recently announcing it could run out of cash before the end of the year—we’ve kept abreast of it all.
For theater owners, the hits just keep coming, and they’re all terrible. (Who would have guessed that Bond’s 00 ultimately meant he was licensed to kill a theater chain?)
Here at Cineluxe, we love movies and experiencing them in the best manner possible. And if you have a state-of-the-art Dolby Cinema or IMAX near you, watching a movie on a giant commercial screen can be an exhilarating experience. I think I speak for all of us when I say that, while I love watching movies in the comfort, safety, and convenience of my own
home theater, I also don’t want commercial theaters to fail and have the opportunity to have that experience go away.
With that preamble, Christie Digital made an announcement on Thursday (10/15) that I’m not entirely sure is a good or bad thing for commercial theaters. The company had been issued a patent “on September 22, 2020, which enables exhibitors to stream movies directly to [a customer’s] home using their current technologies in a way that supplements their existing business model.”
It’s interesting to note that while this patent was issued recently amidst all of the crises the theatrical-distribution model has been facing, Christie actually filed for the patent back in 2018, so it wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to recent events. Also, it seems you could certainly read something into the fact that the company held making this announcement public for nearly a month, perhaps not wanting to pile on more potentially perceived bad news for theater owners.
This patent means that by using Christie’s patented hardware and software packages, along with the company’s streaming and networking products, its cinema partners can “deliver content over IP networks to those at home in real time, directly from the cinema to the sofa.”
After a “we have to say this”-feeling intro in the press release about how much the company loves the cinema, how great the commercial experience is, and how the company hopes to see more people returning to the theatrical experience, Christie executive VP, Brian Claypool, added, “We are under no illusions as to the many challenges that exhibitors face. This technology enables exhibitors to securely show customers premium cinematic content on their own terms, opening an additional potential revenue stream, in these difficult times. Offering premium content direct to consumers is now a reality and Christie’s patented approach places the dynamics of when, how and for how much that content is made available to consumers directly in the hands of exhibitors to decide.”
Instead of the direct-to-home PVOD streaming where the studios keep all the revenue and commercial cinemas are completely cut out of the equation, this appears to be a potential lifeline thrown to theater owners, allowing them to not only have cinematic releases they can show to any butts they can get in seats but also capitalize on streaming titles for those who don’t want to have the commercial experience.
Also, since most commercial cinemas’ revenue comes from concessions—especially during a film’s opening weeks where the revenue sharing is heavily swayed in the studio’s favor—how much this would actually help cinemas is unclear. Even with them taking some piece of the streaming pie, would this option just further cement people’s habits into staying at home instead of venturing out, ultimately killing the theaters in a death by a thousand cuts?
When, in what form, and at what cost and availability this hardware/software package will arrive is also unclear. The announcement did mention “working with Christie’s integrated media block,” which is a Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI)-compliant device that ensures end-to-end security of the theatrical digital content, and said “the system will distribute high-value content to streaming devices that comply with Christie’s strict security and quality specifications.”
Whether these “streaming devices” will require new, proprietary hardware or could be software incorporated into something as mass-market as an AppleTV or Roku is unknown.
Kaleidescape is certainly known for its robust storage and data encryption—as well as having a safe-and-secure movie store for delivering high-quality digital content now supported by every major Hollywood studio—but whether Christie’s solution could be adapted and approved for use on Kaleidescape hardware is also unknown.
With the words “streaming,” “networking,” and “switching technologies” used in the release, it is even possible this might include something that doesn’t just sit on the network but that possibly is the network, where Christie would be in charge of the content and data stream at the router level.
Any concerns over quality were addressed in the release’s final paragraph, which stated it will support “from compressed H.265 streams at 4Mbps to uncompressed 8K at 120Hz at 100Gbps, with unprecedented performance and zero latency over affordable Ethernet components.”
That “when, how and for how much” these titles will cost is “in the hands of exhibitors to decide” would also likely result in a wide range of pricing and availability variances. Also, it’s important to note that just because Christie was awarded a patent, it doesn’t mean this technology will actually be developed or that any studios will sign off on its use with their films. However, this announcement certainly represents another piece in the constantly evolving and ever-changing landscape of film distribution, and how all the players involved are looking to adapt.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.