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“Writing on Water”: Digital Cinema Packages, Key Delivery Messages, and the Ephemerality of Digital Cinema

Click here to view a video on projecting DCPs using KDMs; not so easy, is it?

Val Lewton, the 1940s film producer, once observed that making films was “like writing on water,” since the film medium was so inherently fragile. But that’s nothing compared to the new regime of Digital Cinema Packages.

The latest evidence of this comes from the New York Film Festival, where on September 28, 2012, Brian de Palma was scheduled to present his new film, Passion, to a sold out audience. But there was just one problem; since the movie came as a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package, and not an actual film print, when it came time to screen Passion, no one could unlock the files.

Result: no screening.

As Bob Cashill reported in the web journal Pop Dose, “In what was for me an unprecedented event in my decades of festival going, the screening was cancelled. Why?

Three words: Digital Cinema Package, or DCP.

What is DCP? It’s heralded as the future of cinema projection, but really it’s the present; chances are your local multiplex has gone DCP, as your local independently owned theater or repertory house struggles to find a way to pay for it as celluloid goes up in smoke. The brave new world of digital projection comes with pitfalls, however. Like, if the system malfunctions, and no one can get a grip on what went wrong, you’re [out of luck], as the Film Society of Lincoln Center learned the hard way last night.

If you follow the festival at all you’ve been reading a lot about how Richard Peña, its programming director, is bowing out after 25 years of distinguished service. ‘I bet he wishes he retired last year,’ grumbled a fellow patron as we all exited Alice Tully Hall after more than an hour of waiting.

Peña, who had to keep coming onstage to deliver the worsening news, said that the DCP has been tested without incident minutes before showtime, but minus a code [the KDM, or Key Delivery Message, that] had somehow locked down. Minus someone who could fix the code . . . [and] that was it for the evening.

After a half hour or so of waiting Peña announced that audience members who couldn’t stay could get refunds at the boxoffice. Only 10-15% seemed to. Which was touching; we wanted to see the movie and were willing to put up with the inconvenience . . . But it was out of Peña’s hands, or De Palma’s hands, or any human hands. It was a glitch in the machine, a hiccup in the software. And with that the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was tainted.”

Here’s what happened.

Once upon a time, when you screened a film at a theater, you took the 35mm print out of the shipping case, threaded it up, checked the aspect ratio, focus, and sound level, and ran the film. If you wanted to do an additional screening for a critic, or add an extra show, you could. If you wanted to switch the movie from one screen to another in your theater, you could. If short, you had the time, and the freedom, to have some measure of control over the projection of the films you screened.

Not anymore.

With digital projection comes a series of encryption codes, called KDMs, which must be used to “unlock” the digital files for projection, often within windows as short as four hours. Switching screens or adding additional shows now has to be cleared with the distributor every time, usually by e-mail. You can’t just pull the film and run it anymore. It has to be approved, and unlocked with a KDM, on a case-by-case basis.

As this excerpt from “Digital Cinema Technology: Frequently Asked Questions” notes, “KDM is the acronym for Key Delivery Message. The security key for each movie is delivered in a unique KDM, one KDM per per digital cinema server. The security key is encrypted within the KDM, which means that the delivery of a KDM to the wrong server or wrong location will not work, and thus such errors cannot compromise the security of the movie.

The KDM is a small file, and is typically emailed to the exhibitor. To create the correct KDM, however, requires knowledge of the digital certificate in the projection system’s media block.

KDMs have only a few [emphasis added] conditions associated with their use:

A KDM will only work for one movie title on one server.

A KDM will only work within the prescribed engagement time period.

To play a movie on two servers requires two KDMs for the movie. This means that to move a movie to a 2nd server requires a 2nd KDM. The engagement time window of the KDM is set per the business requirements of the studio distributing the movie. If your KDM expires and you don’t have a new KDM to continue on the engagement, then you cannot play the movie.”

This is about hegemonic studio control; nothing more, or what theorist Tim Wu refers to as the desire to control “The Master Switch.”

DCPs and KDMs take real authority away from the exhibitor; it’s a hypersurveillance system that comes from the top down, and limits what theater owners can do. Digital projection may have many significant attributes — superior picture and sound, no scratches, clean, crisp images — but now movies don’t really exist unless they’re unlocked by the KDM, and have no portability. This is what the studios want. But I’m not sure it’s good for the public, or critics, or exhibitors — a real measure of discretionary freedom has been lost.

Click here, or on the image at the top of this page, to view a demo video on how the process works.

This is an Orwellian future, nothing less.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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