DRM in the projector booth - destroying the village to save it

From Melbourne's Astor Theatre, a harrowing tale of the way that the DRM on digital projectors -- intended to stop exhibitors from leaking high-quality videos onto the Internet -- can interfere with legitimate exhibition. Punishing the innocent to get at the guilty is never a good answer, morally or commercially. The most secure way to manage theatrical exhibition is to ban it altogether; the DRM scheme used by digital projectors comes pretty close to that "solution."

Unlike 35mm film prints that are tangible, come on spools, and run through a mechanical projector, DCPs are files that are ingested into the digital projector which is in many ways simply a very high-tech computer system. Because the physical file is ingested into a projector it can – if the cinema has enough space on its server – be kept there indefinitely and so, having created this situation themselves, the studios and distributors lock the files so that they can only be screened at the times scheduled, booked and paid for by the cinema. This means each DCP comes with what is called a KDM (Key Delivery Message). The KDM unlocks the content of the file and allows the cinema to play the film. It is time sensitive and often is only valid from around 10 minutes prior to the screening time and expiring as close to 5 minutes after the scheduled time. Aside from the obvious fact that this means screenings really do need to run according to scheduled time, it is also means the projectionist can’t test to see if the KDM works or that the quality of the film is right before show time. This isn’t always a problem. But when it is…

When it is a problem we have what happened last night. The KDM we received for Take Shelter didn’t work. We discovered this about ten minutes prior to show time. Being a cinema, and holding evening screenings we couldn’t just call the distributor to get another one because they work office hours. So, our steps began with calling a 24 hour help line in the US. Once we went through the process of authenticating our cinema and scheduled screening we were told we had to call London to authorise another KDM for this particular screening. After calling London and re-authenticating our cinema and session, we were told we could be issued another KDM, but not before the distributor also authorised it. This meant another 5-10 minute delay as we waited for the distributor to confirm that we were indeed allow to show the film at this time. Once confirmation was received we waited for the new KDM to be issued. The KDM arrives as an email zip attachment that then needs to be unzipped, saved onto a memory stick and uploaded onto the server. This takes another 5-10 minutes. Once uploaded the projector needs to recognise the KDM and unlock the programmed presentation. Thankfully, this worked. However, until the very moment when it did we were as unsure as our audience as to whether or not the new KDM would work and therefore whether or not our screening would actually go ahead.

This is one example of one incident in one cinema. There are thousands upon thousands of screenings at cinemas just like us all over the world constantly experiencing these same issues.

What Happened Last Night

(Image: Ozone projectionist, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from gawler_history's photostream)


  1. I’m all for these companies painting themselves into a corner. Let them die an agonizing death so we can move on to a new system built by people who can cope with the opportunities the internet has produced.

  2. So, studios now have specific software keys that need to be used to unlock and play a movie?  Jeepers, I can’t ever imagine this being either taken advantage by either the studios (“We determined you didn’t have enough showings of The Avengers, so we took away your showing of that Ang Lee movie nobody likes and are putting The Avengers there.”) or those who just like to mess with systems (“We decided you were showing The Avengers too much and we wanted to see No Country For Old Men instead.”)

      1.  That would be some kind of awesome mashup.  I suppose Tommy Lee Jones would have to be in it.

  3.  Totally worth it, though, because it is now completely impossible to find pirated copies of movies on the Internet.

    1. Oh my god! I nearly choked to death on my my beer unstoppably laughing.

      Does this mean I can sue the MPAA for nearly killing me with their assclownery?

  4. I work in a library and thought dealing with the issue of loss of access to e-journals and e-books was annoying. Well, it is annoying, but at least it’s easier to resolve than what people who work in theaters have to go through.

  5. This of course goes on top of the fact that DCPs are in the XYZ colour space that is completely unviewable on most monitors.  Also reverse engineering 200Gb of Jpeg’s into something you could copy and watch seems to me to be a lot more effort that ripping the bluray…

    Unfortunately the comments about producing any other system are moot as there are no longer any projectionists anyway.  I’m a projectionist in Glasgow, 1 of 4 left in the entirety of that City. If it wasn’t for that fact that we show foreign films and therefore thankfully still run 35mm (albeit rarely in comparison) there would be 0. We regularly come across these issues with KDM’s and thankfully they are usually easily rectified but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to close a screening because the film simply cannot be played.  However it’s no different that finding out when a film arrives on a tight schedule that the colours are faded and the print is unplayable.

    Long and rambly I know but I guess what I’m hinting at is that whilst I am no fan of DRM (really quite vehemently against it) I don’t find the KDM’s as draconian as a measure as say Diablo 3 or other nonsense ideas that have done nothing but restrict access to ‘real’ consumers.   The world of projection has become a terribly nuanced area very recently full of ethical questions that affect swathes of people.  

    Glad to see some discussion of it appearing.

    1. Is DCP not available (for certain values of available) months before BluRay though? It also has audio mixes and high-res video (perfect for that awesome wallpaper on your new Retina MacBook Pro) that is unique to it’s format which I can imagine being popular in some circles.

  6. Well, you can say one good thing about DRM, it means that any enterprising programmer can sell a bunch of digital snake oil to a big studio and laugh all the way to the bank.

  7. What I find odious about this is that it took three phone calls. In an acutely time-sensitive tech support situation like this, the correct number of phone calls a projectionist should be required to make is one – to a responder that’s active 24/7. I work in executive support in Disney corporate IT, and we have a Teliris telepresence room that our execs use to talk to any of 20 or so similar rooms overseas. If something goes wrong, it’s one phone call to the VNOC in London, who troubleshoots it with us in real time. I’ve never had a problem that they couldn’t fix in less than five minutes. We position ourselves as a service provider to the rest of the company, and Teliris no doubt sees themselves in a similar relationship with us. I guess this mode of thinking hasn’t caught up to certain DCP distributors yet.

    1. Of course if you wouldn’t artificially create a problem spot to begin with, there wouldn’t have to be a time-critical support process in place to try to troubleshoot it when it inevitably goes wrong.

      Nevermind the fact that you will never get universally well working tech-support, because there’s always those who skimp on doing that rather costly endevour and ride on the coattails of those who convinced cinemas that yes, this actually works, and before they know it, sign a heap of support service contracts not worth the paper they’re printed on.

      On any account even if you have a working support process, there is still any number of things that can go wrong. Like the phone being dead, the support centers phones being dead, the machine signing keys having a malware infestation etc. all outside a cinemas control.

      At the bottom line it’s the cinemas who survive or die and who battle at the frontline with your actual customers. Not you and your support staff sitting in your posh office thousands of miles away from a customer, you actually wouldn’t recognize a customer if you where hit over the head with one.

    2. Let me explain the situation: the studio already got their money, they know that the cinema can’t go anywhere else, and the cinema’s support call is nothing but an imposition on their business at this point.

      The reason that you have great support is that you are paying a ton of money for it and the vendor knows that you can walk away from them the second you are unhappy. Completely different situation.

      Follow the money, it always clarifies what appears to be nonsensical business behaviour.

  8. leave it to DRM to make 35mm better than digital.
    seriously…the content industry is pissing me off “its mine, i’ll say when you can watch it, how you can watch it, you dont own it I DO”
    you can’t just own something anymore.

  9. Is it just me, or does that projectionist in the photo look like he could be Cory’s (little?) brother?

  10. I’m in IT and I am just waiting until the world revolts against DRM because at the moment I really don’t know what I as a professional can do. My company just purchased 25,000 in software (That was only 2 license seats by the way)  and the VAR provides you with a license key that you have to turn around and send to another company who sends you a license file that is mac locked onto your computer. So far I have only 1 successful installation because we had to send the license file back and forth for 3 days before it worked correctly. Apparently the 3rd party license company kept forgetting to put important information into the file.

    I don’t know about you but if I pay 25,000 for just 2 seats I don’t expect it to take your company 3 days to get your own DRM working just for a proper install. We bought it fair and square and now the only ones getting the shaft is us.

    I don’t know how I can personally fight back because there is very limited software available for some of the stuff we need to do. Other stuff we just program in house but there isn’t enough time in the world to program everything. Also most big software companies form monopolies so you can’t function without buying what they want you to. Any ideas?

  11. I went to the main article and read some of the comments.  Several pointed out similar problems in the analog world of film reels.  Sometimes a set of reels didn’t show up correctly or were damaged.  So it was interesting to see this is a digital equivalent of an analog problem.
    I am wondering though what keeps the cinema’s computer honest with regards to date and time.  There was a hack on some old software where you just changed the date of your computer to keep using a program.  What’s to keep the cinema from replaying a movie by changing the server time and date?

  12. You know what’s more annoying than the DRM on the DCP? It’s that you can’t project a DCP without it. 

    I know plenty of indie filmmakers who go to various festivals that request DCPs, and those cost them $500 to $1000 (and broke filmmakers don’t really have that kind of cash laying around). Why so much? It’s just Photo-JPEG compression. Why can’t they roll their own?

    It’s because Sony et al. decided that DCPs have to have a key-encryption scheme. You can’t make one without it. And now that your DCP is locked by these people, you’re in hock to them as long as they feel it necessary to hold the key. That’s the scam.

    1. Well technically there are a couple of free software options that anyone could use to create a DCP. Google even has a free DCP software project on the go at the moment. The mindset of “oh, just transcode it I do that with my DVD’s all the time” is ill informed one. And anyway, no one is forcing anyone to have DRM on they’re DCP’s it the choice of the distributer/film maker. Most commercials and trailers are DCP’s these days and they don’t have encryption and it can be the same for smaller film makers. 

      I run a DCinema department in Australia and even though some of the above statements are accurate (delays with film equate to delays with DCP’s) to take the professionals out of the creation of professional level content can cause so many more problems that it’s just not worth the time and money that is sunk into an under financed film. 

      This is one thing that I don’t see anyone talking about. The death of film and the digital media revolution neglects to take into account a skill base formed from over 100 years of film making. Home editing suits and a 5D is great but it’ll never equate to something that a seasoned team can create. A good colorist can transform a film, the same way that a score can and these professionals will always be needed. The methods may have changed but experience counts for more then reading some websites, or going to a school.

      In regards to KDM’s, it’s a lot easier then everyone seems to think. 80% of the problems that I encounter in Australia & New Zealand are due to lack or origination. Theatres are routinely provided with KDM’s well in advance (not all the time but often) and they often don’t check keys until just before a screening. If you did that with film you could also find that maybe the audio isn’t in sync, or the reels are wrong. but procedures were put in place to be organised and check everything before it is shown. The same goes here. Theatres only have themselves to blame if they have received content & keys ahead of time and then they don’t do anything with those items before the screening. Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean that it’s easy, and procedures need to be enforced to ensure the smooth running of all screenings.  Admittedly, midnight screenings and launches are always pushed close to the mark with active times but there’s still ways to ensure that everything is working ok.

  13. “There are thousands upon thousands of screenings at cinemas just like us all over the world constantly experiencing these same issues.”

    Citation, please?

  14. ….and then someone sits in the back of a quiet session with an HD camera, fixes the focus and aperture and dumps it to TPB that afternoon. When I was a kid I remember my uncle always having new release movies on VHS. He got them for $10 apiece from the cinema owner who had shot the cam himself.

    Don’t the industry retards ever look at what illegal downloads are available? It’s almost always screeners and cams – none of which would be upped from the cinema operators themselves as that would be cutting into their own profits.

  15. That’s very true teapot. The Cam’s are Bluray rips are where most content is sourced from. I wondered this myself, seems like a strange way of attacking a related problem. But on the first round of DCinema projectors you could take the SDI output from the DCinema server and plug that into a video card (or even SR Deck) and just crash record, so I can understand why they wanted to wrap that up. 

  16. They had an awesome copy protection scheme when they first released Twilight where the audio would switch from digital to analog 3 times, in different spots for each copy, so they could pin down which copy showed up on TPB or something, except the theater hadn’t set up the analog audio properly, so at three points (kind of important ones) toward the end of the movie the sound just went dead for 30 seconds. The audience wasn’t thrilled.

    And no, I don’t even want to hear that we shouldn’t have been watching such a crappy movie anyway…
    The sign in the lobby… https://plus.google.com/photos/118197632889606510964/albums/5754079624849083457/5754079627532422338?banner=pwa

    1. Such fail. I really don’t wanna give these jerks any pointers, but it always perplexed me why they don’t just add some superfluous object in the background of one of the shots in post and make several different versions of the scene as a much-less-detectable way of identifying the different copies. They could also just make one scene run slightly longer in the different versions.

      1.  That implies they want to be actively involved in stopping the process.  As it is now they have carte blanche to ask everyone to do all the work for them because of “the pirates” or “the children” and sometimes “the children pirates!”

      2. They do this, but more subtly. There are patterns of reddish dots that appear for a frame or two at a time (often in bright shots right before a cut to a different scene). The patterns are different presumably on a per-print basis.

        Now, I think that’s quite easily defeated once you know to look for it, and it’s possible they decided to try new techniques (like the sound thing) because the dots weren’t working. 

        According to the wikipedia article about this there’s a new watermark/dot system that’s supposed to be imperceptible which may explain why I haven’t noticed the dots lately. 

        If the reddish dots are still in use, though, I’ll warn you that they’re the kind of thing, like the reel change cue marks, that once you notice for the first time you always see – so sorry to anyone who reads this comment and didn’t know :)

  17. tl;dr – New DRM scheme has problem that requires tech support. Tech support solves problem quickly and (reasonably) efficiently. As others have pointed out, analogous things happen with film.

    I dislike DRM as much as the next guy, but this is hardly a sterling example of the kind of BS that DRM causes.

  18. I’m not a fan of DRM either, but it seems to me that the problem in this story isn’t the DRM technology, but rather the incredibly restrictive time period during which the license key works, which prevents the theatre from previewing the film before showing it, and which doesn’t allow for unforeseen delays in starting the showing. If the key’s timing were relaxed to allow its use multiple times within a certain timeframe (a few hours, say) then most of these problems would disappear.

    1. The problem is that,
      a) cinemas are being saddled with draconian DRM for entirely retarded reasons (see a comment further up about the fact that almost any pirated copy from a cinema will be a cam copy, not a direct rip-and-convert), and
      b) this DRM is clunky, prone to failure, and poorly-supported (imagine if YOU had to make three tech support calls and spend half an hour before you could watch a movie–come to think of it, this reminds me of Blu-Ray player firmware upgrades).

      It’s unnecessary and punishes both the cinemas (who are the first-release distribution channel for the movie studios, most of the time) and paying customers (delays, the potential that the screening will be scrubbed because the DRM’s too broken to recover in a timely fashion).

      It’d be like selling jars of peanut butter that haven’t been checked for contamination by rat poop, and then forcing grocery stores to bear the refund cost (instead of passing the cost back up to the supplier) when people come back and demand their money because they got a jar of PB with RP in it.

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