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Hard drives coming to a theater near you

At a media event for BlueArc in Boston yesterday, I spoke to Tom Burns, director of post-production infrastructure for Technicolor, about an interesting project going on with movie studios and storage.

It’s called the Digital Cinema Initiative, a joint venture of Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios aiming to convert movie theaters from film projection to digital movie delivery on FireWire hard drives. Eventually, Burns told me, the studios want to move from delivering movies to theaters in heavy, expensive film prints to sending them on hard drives so they could be played through license keys.

If you think you’ve got problems with analog tape in the IT world, consider the plight of the movie projectionist, who must splice together film prints and align them just so on a massive platter more than a yard in diameter. Splice it wrong, and part of the movie will be upside down and backwards, and the whole thing will need to be unspooled from the platter and re-spliced. Film also often spontaneously unspools itself from the platter if not fed through the projector at the right speed. I worked at a movie theater in college and have seen this tangled, panicked phenomenon in action. It’s sometimes called a “brain wrap” for the looping patterns the loose film makes on the platter/floor, and it’s not pretty.

A move to digital delivery would make it easier for theaters to transfer movies between screens, as they frequently do to move older releases to smaller theaters to make room on bigger screens for the latest premieres. It could also potentially eliminate another custom of the film-projection world that’s costly in terms of time for the cinema: the tech screening. It’s usually done the night before a movie opens to make sure everything’s in proper working order. But this new technology has a downside for theater employees, who are often asked to be the audience for tech screenings to point out any flaws in the film. With those tech sceenings gone, theater employees would lose their free sneak previews.

Speaking of sneak previews, BlueArc execs gave customers, partners and the media a look at the 2008 overall strategy for the company, which still plans on going public. The SEC-imposed quiet period on BlueArc led to some humor in the form of a revenue-growth slide with no numbers on it. CEO Mike Gustafson gamely posed for a photo in front of it for me:

BlueArc CEO in front of a funny 'quiet period' revenue slide

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Hey Beth - Actually something similar to this has been going on for some time. I've heard of a number of theaters that have been retrofitted to play movies delivered on a high-definition dual-layer DVD. (More like a VCD than what is now referred to as the defunct HD-DVD format. This worked out well but what was lacking was something you referred to in your article, copy protection. A neighbor of mine had a copy of Star-wars Episode III on DVD that I presume he got from a similar source, as the quality was unbelievable. As for password protection, the easiest way to protect against copying would be to link the key to the theater, so that if a license key got out the movie industry would know exactly where it came from.