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Dome Convergence

Film domes: According to the LF Examiner’s database, there are 99 ‘large-format’* dome theaters (15/70 mainly, plus some 10/70 and 8/70), and this number has been declining. (*Not all of these ‘large-format’ film dome theaters meet the GSCA definition of “giant-screen” because of they fall short of the 60-foot diameter criterion). This is a mature, 40-year old business. The first large-format dome theater, San Diego’s Reuben H. Fleet Science Center’s IMAX® Dome theater, opened in 1973. (Its transition to digital has begun with the recent installation of a new digital dome system (GSX™) from Global Immersion, supplementing the 15/70, IMAX® Dome capability which continues.) Live-action, documentary films are of course the staple for film domes, with running times in the 40-minute range. These dome screens are tilted, usually at a 30-degree angle. The audience, on a steeply-raked seating deck, faces one direction (‘unidirectional’). Seat counts are typically in the 250 – 400 range. Films are licensed on a variable fee, gate share basis – either per head or a percentage of box office. A single, large-format film/mechanical projector with a fisheye lens illuminates an image area that is equal to about two-thirds of a hemisphere.

Digital fulldome: This is obviously a newer sector. The first permanent fulldome theater was installed by Sky-Skan at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in late 1998. The installed base of fulldome theaters has been growing steadily throughout the last decade, and the worldwide total (as of early April, 2012) stands at 1001, according to Loch Ness Productions’ online database of fulldome theaters. (See www.lochnessproductions.com/lfco/lfco.html). 110 fulldome theaters are “giant screen” by the GSCA standard (at least 60 feet in diameter) – exceeding the total of “large-format” domes, not all of which qualify as giant-screen. Another 174 are medium size (40 – 59 feet). Approximately 700 are small (less than 40 feet in diameter), including more than 200 which are portable domes.

Pre-rendered fulldome content has been dominated by CGI productions, and the majority of topics are astronomy. The only live-action shows are re-formatted giant-screen films, though live-action capture has been composited into some CGI productions. Content is typically licensed on a fixed fee basis, paid up-front, for terms of 1, 3 and 5 years, though 25 and even 50-year terms are offered at times, for not much more than the cost of a 3-year license. Multiple projectors (2 – 8) are used to illuminate those screens which are comparable in size to LF film domes. The projected image fills the full, 180-degree area of a hemispherical screen. However, the tilt of the domes range from level (zero degree angle with the floor) to 10 and15 degrees, and some have film-dome like tilts of 25 or 30 degrees, often because they share the dome screen with a film dome system. Seating capacity tends to be less than their comparable-size film counterparts. Unidirectional seating configurations, while more prevalent in the larger domes, are used in less than a quarter of all digital domes; the majority - especially those with level or low-angle domes - have concentric and other seating patterns. The majority of pre-rendered shows have running times in the 20 – 25 minute range; a minority have running times of more than 30 minutes. Only a few shows are more than 40 minutes. Fulldome theater operators acquire production tools from their projection system integrators to create their own CGI shows, and they use software with digital models of the known universe for live presenter-led, real time presentations of planetarium content.

Worldwide Dome Theater Market*

(*The percentages in the pie chart are of a total 1077 screens. Sources: Fuldome screen counts are from Mark C. Petersen’s (Loch Ness Productions) State of the Dome Address, February 2012; Large-format film dome counts are from the LF Examiner database as of March 2012.)

Clearly, there are many differences between these two sectors, but what do they have in common? Both types of dome theaters are mainly in institutional settings and have strong educational mandates. Although topics and production budgets differ, both favor documentaries. And of course both offer a genuinely immersive environment. Theater operators in both groups demand content produced for the dome, or at least re-formatted properly with dome geometry in mind.

So, thinking about all the differences and similarities, what are the obstacles to convergence, what can be done to overcome them, to accelerate the march to convergence? To answer this, I believe this assumption is required: it’s probably most practical to focus on the convergence between the large-format film domes and their comparably-sized digital fulldome counterparts. This suggests an installed base of at least 209 domes (the large-format film domes, plus the giant-screen film domes). If the medium size digital domes are included, the potential ‘converged’ dome market becomes almost 400 domes, or about four times the current LF film dome count. And that’s just as of today – not factoring the underlying growth that of digital fulldome theaters.

The business model: 
Perhaps the most important obstacle to overcome is the difference in businessI believe that for long-term growth of a healthy large digital dome sector, it has to fully embrace the theatrical model of variable license fees – percentage of box office or per head. This means for convergence to occur, the larger fuldome theaters will have to accept a change from the current fixed-fee approach. (The fixed fees, while often taking account of a theater’s overall annual attendance, often use criteria such as dome size and seat count). Adopting variable license fees doesn’t necessarily mean that overall license fees for fulldome theaters has to increase, rather, it just means that a market-based price mechanism should be adopted, so that net theater revenues to the distributor are allocated in direct proportion to attendance and revenue to the film, or in other words, as a direct reflection of a film’s appeal. This is also the fairest approach.

And if variable license fee pricing is adopted, producers will have a clear incentive to not only create better shows but their distributors will have an incentive to provide more marketing support to theaters. (At present, fulldome distributors generally spend very little on any kind of marketing support). This will lead to a more theatrical approach, whereby fulldome theaters are much more aware of how well individual shows are doing; and if film performance is constantly measured, the better shows will stay on the schedule and the less successful ones will rotate out. It probably also means that those fulldome theaters that don’t have an admission charge for fulldome show would get an incentive to add one. The fixed sum approach leads to a “catalog” mentality, which is enabled by the distributors , as theaters collect new titles like baseball cards, and play them to amortize their licensing cost and not necessarily according to audience demand.

As an aside, the many hundreds of small fulldome theaters have structural reasons why they will not likely move to variable license fees anytime soon. Among their reasons: with no way or need to count attendance or revenue, and operating as a cost center, they manage to an annual budget of new shows to license. If they are part of a university, college or other school, as many are, they have modest budgets that demand the certainty of a fixed license fee. And no matter how much better one show may be than another, if they have a built-in flow of students as their only audience, better shows won’t translate to more students visiting. Does this mean this segment should be ignored? No. If ;ive-action film distributors accept these realities and the continuation of fixed fee pricing, they can treat this as a secondary or ancillary segment. Even though revenues per screen may be relatively low ($5,000 - $7,500 per title), the small screens are the largest and fastest growing segment, so aggregate distribution revenues can still be quite meaningful.


Digital dome distribution

The current fulldome video frame has a 1:1 aspect ratio containing a polar circularA digital dome master is typically 4k x 4k. Large-format film for domes uses the classic 4:3 aspect ratio. In order for giant-screen films to be projected on fulldome systems, a 4k x 3k digital master of the film needs to be re-formatted to the 4k x 4k fulldome format. Then, for playback on a particular system, the resulting dome master needs to be sliced (assuming multiple projectors) and encoded for a particular theater’s system. Fulldome slicing/encoding is proprietary to each system vendor, and, each theater requires a unique encoding of the video files for playback on its fulldome system. If an analogous process was required for film-based theaters, each GS film projector vendor would require a print-making process that is unique to its projectors, plus, a unique print would have to be made for playback for each customer’s system. Clearly, the current process for converting and preparing giant-screen films for fulldome is complicated, costly, and time consuming. The re-formatting process is proprietary to, and controlled by each of the fulldome vendors who offer it. Similarly, the slicing/encoding software is controlled by the hardware vendors, and they license it to their theater customers (and not third-party distributors), but many theaters can’t or won’t do their own slicing/encoding, preferring instead to rely on their vendor. All of this is surely restricting the flow of re-formatted giant-screen films and stifling potential competition from independent distributors.

Fulldome distribution logistics don’t look very efficient to outsiders. How can this inefficiency be addressed? First, the re-formatting process needs to be standardized and commoditized, possibly by the entry of digital post-production suppliers entering the business. Ultimately – in the longer term - digital domes need a true standard, requiring fewer projectors - ideally just one powerful, high resolution projector, (so no slicing required), and a single codec and file type. This is what was mandated by the DCI specification, and DIGSS attempted to build on DCI, for domes as well as flat screen, using the 4:3 frame. In the short run, convergence would be facilitated if the hardware vendors would license their slicing/encoding software to independent distributors.


Digital dome content

If true convergence is to happen, then fulldome theaters will expand their acceptance of documentary content other than astronomy, and film domes will embrace real-time and pre-rendered digital planetarium content. With the broadening of science topics outside of astronomy seen in newer digital fulldome productions, and the growing acceptance by some fulldome of theaters to programming re-formatted giant-screen films, fulldome theaters are showing promising signs ofHowever, it’s not so obvious that the reverse is true for the giant-screen domes.

As a co-founder of IMERSA, Dan Neafus is hopeful that digital domes will explore a wide array of content, but he is “skeptical” that there will be true convergence in content between these two camps. He points out that film domes are used to programming bigger budget, longer films, whereas digital fulldome theaters are used to shorter films, smaller budgets, which translate to lower license fees. (This could be addressed by producers of 40-minute films releasing 20-25 minute versions for planetarium fulldome theaters.) Further, as Neafus explains, the “big delineator” will be the use (or not) of live-presenter aided planetarium or other science shows that mix the use of sophisticated software and in-theater technical tools, with good old-fashioned showmanship. Film dome theaters have approached their programming more theatrically, with pre-produced content only, so adopting this approach would be quite a change.

Signs that film domes have begun to ‘multiplex’ their theaters by adding digital media and live presenters to their programming were seen in the recent GSCA Dome Theaters survey, whose results I presented at the recent GSCA Film Expo: 41% of our dome theater respondents who had a large-format film system also programmed digital media (including fulldome video in several cases) and live presentations. Further, better-than-average annual attendance correlated with the addition of non-large-format film programming at a dome theater that offers LF films. This latter finding wasn’t a surprise to many in the fulldome business, including Steve Savage, president of Sky-Skan. For him, this finding validates his belief that that the standards being created under the DIGSS umbrella be allowed to evolve so that “more freedom is allowed to occur”.


Digital dome standards

Perhaps the second biggest obstacle to dome convergence is the need for a unified set of standards for the digital dome. This is going to take leadership from the relevant trade associations, such as GSCA and IMERSA, and key industry stakeholders. DIGSS is fine start for the giant-screen domes, though version1.0 still needs to be activated (by GSCA) and a “v2.0” will be needed before too long. However, DIGSS and DCI are designed for a cinema use of a theater – they don’t accommodate real time planetariumAnd higher frame rates for the higher resolution projectors are needed. “60 fps is critical for moving through the universe,” and currently, “no 4k DLP projector can go above 30 fps”, a concern expressed by Michael Daut, Director of Production and Marketing for Evans & Sutherland. Martin Howe, Chief Executive of Global Immersion weighs in on the standards discussion; “DCI is far too specific to the cinema market, however DIGSS could easily be adopted to encourage DCI-like standards for fulldome projection. DIGSS should be updated to provide realistic and achievable specifications for fulldome systems - the specs are so far off at the moment they are pointless”.

The reality is, a converged digital dome market may need to adopt standards for both 4x4 (for planetarium content), and 4x3 (for live-action documentaries), for many years.

And what about an open, digital dome system? “I thought everyone wanted an open system, but as it turns out, not so”, laments Steve Savage, referring to the LF film domes taking a wait-and-see approach, as they delay much of their digital transition planning until Imax Corporation unveils its new digital dome solution, which is expected to be only a partially open system, like the IMAX flat screen digital platform.
Is convergence a good thing? The answer depends on the needs and goals of who you ask. Pooling the interests and buying power of the larger domes especially is more likely to lead to live-action dome-centric programming that domes want, and more sophisticated CGI productions with bigger budgets and higher production values. For a live-action producer, the small digital domes may not be the core customer, but they can still offer a substantial ancillary revenue opportunity, much they way home video/DVD is a meaningful but later release window in theatrical. A bigger installed base of digital domes creates an incentive for equipment suppliers to create more powerful and flexible digital systems.

On the other hand, planetarium professionals who pride themselves in their role as astronomy educators may not be as enamored with the convergence if it means less show schedule available for astronomy shows and presenter-led real time shows. Conversely, a film dome theater with no heritage of showing CGI productions about astronomy subjects won’t easily re-position their theater for this type of content. Perhaps the way to think of convergence is that it is “more of (multi-lane) highway merge”, observes Dan Neafus, director of the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Cars moving in the same direction have on-ramps and off-ramps so that traffic has to merge. Some cars stay on for a while, some may leave.

For all the growth in the digital fulldome marketplace and prospects of this continuing, Neafus cautions, “keep in mind, it’s not going to be explosive growth”. And there won’t be that many more new permanent domes built, especially giant-screen domes. All the more reason for industry stakeholders to take a careful, long term view and work together to find consensus solutions.

The dome convergence discussion tends to assume the continuation of content types that are the staple of dome theaters’ programming today. But what if a new content form takes hold with digital dome platforms? Perhaps convergence will be driven by new digital interactive content that is well-suited to the immersive geometry of dome theaters. As Martin Howe elaborates, “interactivity has been ‘prototyped’ in many domes over many years. The use-case hasn’t proven to be ‘sticky’ enough yet, the technology is there now it’s waiting for the killer app.”

Even if some form of convergence is inevitable, the speed of it is uncertain. Steve Savage offers his take on the challenges; “You’d think it (convergence) would be easy, but actually it’s wicked complicated. From a technology point of view, no problem. The hard part is getting programming”, referring to reformatted giant-screen films. Thinking about how programming is linked to longstanding relationships, Savage sums up by stating that achieving convergence, after all, “is not about technology, it’s about people.”

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Paul Fraser is president of Blaze Digital Cinema Works (www.blazedigitalcinema.com). Blaze’s assignments have included projects for digital fulldome producers, distributors, and film domes exploring the addition of digital solutions. Paul is a Director of the GSCA, and a volunteer advisor to the IMERSA Board of Directors.

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