A Business Model From The Golden Age

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-10-02 Email Print this article Print

The entertainment industry is rushing to replace an outdated film production and distribution system with a nimble digital supply chain.

A Business Model From The Golden Age

In part, the studios have failed to embrace technology in the past because of the decentralized structure of the business. "The film industry is almost still a cottage or boutique industry," says Dennis R. Short, professor of computer graphics at Purdue University and former director of the Purdue International Center for Entertainment Technology. "The companies are formed for production and then are dissolved, so it's not like the game industry or broadcast television, which have an ongoing presence. The film industry revolves around very short-term production and is very, very expensive. The studios also tend to lease a lot of their equipment, so the whole structure is built around that type of an action."

It was also based on a business model held over from the days of Gone with the Wind. Notes Short: "The movie industry traditionally made its money off the initial release [of a film]. Distribution was almost a trickle-down [process] with the product going from major markets to smaller markets, so if you were out somewhere in Nebraska, it might take several years before the film got there."

With the advent of DVDs, the Internet, broadband and cheaper storage, the industry began moving cautiously toward change, but in Hollywood old habits die hard. "When we showed up a few years ago and started to survey whether our technology could be applied there, all we saw was the classic thing where you ran these giant spaghetti charts," says HP's Kuehle. "Everything was siloed and tape-based, so every process was on tape and films were still being sent out via Fed Ex or courier. It was almost comical." With the exception of DVD,

production-oriented technology that helps create, capture, refurbish and distribute films—in effect, serve as a digital supply chain—were at best severely limited.

Not to worry. The industry was stable. There was a comfortable window—30 to 40 weeks—between the time a film was released in theaters and the time a studio had to stamp and distribute the DVD version. The industry was only dealing with a few channels, mostly pay-per-view and video-on-demand (VOD). Given these limited requirements, the processes on the back end worked just fine.

That's changed abruptly, according to Kuehle. "Now you suddenly have three different types of DVDs [DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc, or BD], and you have to concern yourself with Apple iTunes and other mobile devices plus more aggressive demand from VOD," he says. "This puts pressure on the studios to repurpose their content very close to the initial release date, which is completely breaking the existing systems down. They just don't scale."

Which is why studios are now rushing to catch up.

In recent months, a number of film companies have undertaken projects to digitize their operations. As an example, DreamWorks is now tapping into HP's enormous server farm for additional information-technology resources. HP is supplying technical workstations, servers, printers, networking and Linux technologies as DreamWorks develops its newest animation pipeline. Sony Pictures Entertainment is partnering with HP and Ascent Media Group, which provides solutions for the creation, management and distribution of content to entertainment and media companies, to digitize its library of movies. The Walt Disney Co., Cisco Systems and Intel recently announced they have invested in MovieBeam, a newly formed digital entertainment venture that enables subscribers to access videos on demand wirelessly.

Warner Bros., however, has arguably made the earliest and most far-reaching commitment to new technology. Compared with its competitors, the company has been quick to innovate, creating user-generated Web sites such as AcmeCity, which featured Warner characters, as far back as 1999, and pioneering the development of DVD.

Currently it is partnering with HP, which provides a digital media platform, to transform the studio's entire film production and distribution process to an all-digital, file-based system and create an architecture that make the transaction possible. To grasp the scale of the undertaking, consider that last year the company produced in excess of 2,500 different DVDs; delivered more than 180 hours of video programming weekly over its global digital media exchange; produced and/or distributed 50-plus television series; is in the process of digitizing more than 6,000 feature films in its vaults for DVD release; and released numerous films, three of which earned more than

$200 million—a studio and industry record for a single year.

Warner's efforts to digitize its business jibed with HP's introduction of its digital media platform, a standards-based framework of software, hardware and services that functions like an operating system for rich digital media and relies on service-oriented architecture. HP describes it as a platform on which users can create large-scale distributed applications linking the systems used to work with digital media. "Warner's digital end-to-end vision very much mapped with some of the slides we made for our digital media platform," Kuehle says. "That's how we got together."

With the HP EVA 8000 storage system as its centerpiece, Warner began digitizing and storing its films last year. "Typically, we scan a film to digital using 4K horizontal resolution, store and manipulate it, and then create the digital master," says Dages, who explains that "4K" refers to the number of picture elements in the horizontal scan of the image. At the same time, Warner may create what it calls an "Fproxy" of the same images at a lower resolution. The studio uses the Fproxy elements for editing and review of all the images created from live action sequences.

Once the scenes of the film are edited, the high-resolution images are played from storage in sequence, then printed out to film. In the end, the studio has a complete film version plus a digital version for digital cinema release. Both versions, as well as ancillary information regarding rights, royalties and the like—or meta-data—make up what the studios calls an "E-master" and are stored on file servers at Warner Bros.

The E-master files are enormous, as much as 40 terabytes. In the repository on the lot, Warner installed 150 terabytes of active storage from HP and another 150 terabytes of backup storage, but even that was insufficient.

"When we were putting this system together, we tried to leverage existing techniques for database management to handle the amount of data we were creating," Dages says, "but we found that the backbones that interconnected the storage itself were stretched beyond their capabilities. As a result, throughput dropped dramatically, and basically machines were crashing because rather than having files of moderate size that were being moved around the system, we had these enormous gigabyte and terabyte files that were being moved from one process to the next."

"These files are so big that technologies like DAM [digital asset management] aren't really effective even though you try to bend and morph them to apply to media," Kuehle adds. "You're taking about 200-gigabyte files that need to be moved through a workflow, quickly moved in and out of a repository, and quickly found and retrieved. It's just new territory."

Working with HP, Warner accomplished a modification of its workflow analysis and increased parametric monitoring of the critical system parameters, coupled with high-performance storage systems. "These permit us to manipulate the files at the speeds we want," Dages says. At the same time, Warner and HP were able to deal with the different forms of distribution, which have varying requirements, by working with standard image files to create a high-resolution digital master of a film. As an example, video-on-demand requires bandwidth of

3 to 4 megabits per second, while high-definition broadcasts transmit at 10 to 20 megabits per second.

The upshot is that about seven months ago when Warner started this process, Dages says, it was only able to process one or two pictures at a time. "Even at that rate, the network and the storage would clog up," he points out. "Today, we have the capability of taking upward of 10 simultaneous motion picture projects and working on them in this environment. The creation of these digital masters obviously is important in that we can make a transformation to whatever channel we need to get to the consumer."

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