how are movies are distributed to theaters?


I was recently thinking about how much better movies in theaters are than streaming, and had the thought: how do such undoubtedly massive files get sent to theaters everywhere?

Some kind of internet transfer could be good since you can just upload once and let whatever theaters need it take it, but the logistics of making some kind of website that can have every movie ever on it and is also completely secret would be horrifying. In addition, the file size and importance of losslessness makes any internet transfer I can think of impractical.

You could also give everyone physical copies of the movie, but that would entail massive shipping costs and effectively bar small theaters from getting all but the very most well funded movies. Producing millions of drives, especially ones with the capacity for your movies, seems like a silly way to run a business as well.

tl;dr full detail, complete movies have way too much detail and there are way too many movie theaters that need to receive them for any distribution process i can think of to work. how do movies get from “file on the last editors computer” to nearly every theater projector in the world having access to it?

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They send out special drives that the projectors at the theatre can’t play without a decryption key. They send the drives out ahead of the films release and then send over the decryption code digitally when it’s time for the premiere. In the grand scheme of the cost of a movie, the cost of buying and shipping drives to theaters is nothing.

Hi. I run a company in Burbank that handles this. (DCP creation. DCP = Digital Cinema Package)

I am the last step for many production companies and studios before their movie/series goes to Theaters/streaming.

The post house sends me the deliverables (usually a ProRes 4444 XQ and 5.1/7.1 audio stems. XQ means xtra quality. Not really, but I’m not really sure what it means.)

Then, I work on conforming the picture to 24fps (frames per second) (usually from 23.976fps), adjusting the audio to match, and then putting it in its proper container (FLAT or SCOPE.) Movies in the cinema can be show as either FLAT 1998×1080 or SCOPE 2048×858 (2K dimensions listed).

After I run all my QCs (quality controls/tests), I park the finished DCP package (which is the final movie… 6 files, 1 picture, 1 audio, 4 basic mapping files) on the FTP (file transfer protocol) and the theaters have access to download, and they are given KDMs (key delivery message, passcodes basically) as well. These KDMs notate that a particular theater can play the film in its entirety a certain number of times and for a certain amount of time.

Sometimes, depending on the situation, I will have to make a bunch of physical CRU (Customer Replaceable Unit, a drive that can be inserted and ejected by the user/customer). Hardrives that have the DCP (digital cinema package) mounted on them and that are formatted to be ingested into (put onto) the DCP (digital cinema package) server in the projection booth.

That’s about it.

At the moment I’m working on doing all the DCPs for an International Film Festival in Pasadena that’s coming up. So I’ll be making about 100 or so DCPs over the next few weeks.

You’re right that the movies are distributed physically. And others will give a better explanation of that.

I want to clarify that the logistics of doing it digitally would actually be much simpler. The streaming websites (eg Netflix) are capable of exactly this and much more. Distributing a movie once per theater, in non-streaming manner is much easier task than distributing a movie in streaming manner on demand to millions of users. Just because the lossless version is much larger doesn’t really factor into this as a logistics question.

>You could also give everyone physical copies of the movie, but that would entail massive shipping costs and effectively bar small theaters from getting all but the very most well funded movies.

I worked in a movie theater before they went digital, so shipping physical copies was the only way to do it. They’d come in a “can”, about a foot and a half across, or sometimes two cans for a long movie.

Sometimes we’d get an early preview. In order to keep the preview exclusive, they’d make the delivery guy sit next to the physical film the whole time we had it. (To keep us from copying it somehow, I guess?) Once, while I was putting together a film (it comes in pieces), the delivery guy told me his life story and the history of his home country.

The company provides the movie in the DCP format, it is a very large and high-quality file format, to the theatre.

Usually on a hard drive, but also it is possible to download using Internet-based or satellite-based channels.

What is important: this file is encrypted with a special key. The key is coded to the serial number of the playback equipment AND the show date/time.

The system uses a special playback server and a special projector which is connected to the server using a high-encrypted connection (not your regular HDMI/DVI/VGA). There are a lot of security circuits, for example, the current date and time are stored in a special battery-backed chip and you are only allowed to change the time VERY LITTLE. This is to avoid using the same key by ‘going back in time’. If the battery has run dry and was not replaced in time in a proper manner (without a power termination), the current date and time as well as the decryption keys for the software are lost and the equipment is useless without expensive factory repair. So it is not possible to tamper with or extract the security data.

Also, as far as I know, there may be some ‘markers’ in the movie picture to track who have captured the movie using a camcorder (if it has happened).