Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC), the largest cine operator in Kuwait, has brought the first digital cinema to the Middle East region. The pilot digital cinema project, which was contracted to Real Image Media Technologies (RIMT), an Indian company, included the installation of a Qube high definition XP-D DCI compliant digital cinema server and a Cinemeccanica 2K digital projector.
KNCC, which operates the Cinescape chain in Kuwait, intends this digital cinema installation to be a showcase for the rest of the Middle East. The installation surpasses the 2K-quality standard agreed upon by the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), a US-based industry group whose members include major Hollywood film studios.
"We have undertaken this at Shaab cinema in Kuwait," says Hisham F Al Ghanim, deputy general manager of Programmes & Services, KNCC. "The entire project has cost us about US $150,000. Normally, it shouldn't be so expensive but since we started everything from A to Z, it cost us more. Also, we have invested in the most state-of-the-art technology. This pilot installation is intended to be a showcase; we wanted to be the first in the region to take a step in this direction."
As part of his efforts to understand the technology better, Al Ghanim even travelled to the Cinemeccanica Theatrical Equipment Co's factory in Italy to train on the vendor's digital projector. "The course has helped us to understand the equipment better and we are more comfortable with the technology now," he confirms.
On Al Ghanim's return from Milan, KNCC urged its distributors to send along a digital copy of their films. "Our first response came from India saying that Shivaji (a blockbuster Tamil film) is available in digital format. So the first Indian digital movie has been played on our digital screen. However, most other distributors do not currently have a digital copy."
This is, however, expected to change within a year, says Senthil Kumar, CEO of Real Image.
"High-quality 2K and 4K cameras are becoming more accessible price-wise which should encourage filmmakers to increase their output," he claims. Already, all of the Hollywood Studios have committed to producing their films for digital distribution under the terms of the DCI agreement, and in India we are producing the bulk of our films for digital distribution."
Adopting digital cinema in the Middle East is not, however, without its challenges, says Al Ghanim. Subtitling and editing have been the chief issues that KNCC is currently trying to resolve. For one, the 35mm films have to be sent to Cairo for subtitling before they are brought back to Kuwait to be reviewed by the censor board. This then has to be sent back to the Real Image office in Chennai, India for editing and converting to the digital format.
"This is a cumbersome process and takes between eight and ten days.
Having to go back to Real Image each time we need to edit or digitise a film is not practical in the long run so we are negotiating for technical support from Real Image and digitisation to be done here," explains Al Ghanim.
KNCC and Qube Cinema are already negotiating the possibility of setting up a digital cinema mastering unit in the region to convert Arabic content to DCI compliant Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs). "We are currently assessing a number of options in terms of a location for the facility. Dubai Studio City is a strong possibility. We expect to attract many clients from across the Middle East looking to showcase their films in a D-cinema environment," confirms Kumar.
Adopting the digital format brings with it several benefits related to both cost and audio-visual quality. "In terms of image quality and sound, the digital format is better as the quality is the same whether it's being played for the first time or the 100th time unlike 35 mm, where the quality of the film degrades each time it is played so audiences never see the best quality," says Kumar.
If the digital cinema project takes off, KNCC will stand to gain significantly, Kumar adds. For one, the 1Tb XP-D server can store up to five 2K-standard digital films providing the chain with greater flexibility in terms of film session scheduling. Secondly, digital formats eliminate film and transportation costs. Piracy is also better controlled with digital formats.
"The Middle East is a unique market in that cinema chains have to feature a mix of Arabic, Western and Indian films to cater to the demands of the region's multicultural population," he says. "Digital cinema is a great technology for such markets where cost is a primary consideration. Film prints cost around US $2000 to produce, which is expensive, when you consider digital copies are around one-tenth this amount."
Kumar predicts the growth of D-cinema in the Middle East would ultimately encourage greater digital film production across the region. "The DCI standard is very forward-looking. At 2K, it's actually beyond high-definition image quality," he claims.
However, while many Western cinema chains have embraced digital film delivery platforms such as the internet and satellite distribution technology, Kumar says that given Kuwait's relatively small geographical footprint, establishing a data network is not a major priority. "It's actually more cost-effective for KNCC to manually distribute the films to cinemas across the country on USB drives," he says.
In the meantime, KNCC is negotiating the possibility of opening megaplexes in other parts of the region such as the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar.
"If we go regional, we will need a differentiating element and Digital cinema may be our USP," he says. "However, we first need to resolve the issues related to the digital format and only if our pilot project is successful can we consider moving forward on this front. In the meantime, it is still business as usual. We are getting ready for the launch of a 11-screen megaplex this October in Avenues shopping mall in Kuwait. All of these will be based on traditional 35mm projectors from Cinemeccanica."