A few people have asked me what I do with the movies after we show them or if I can burn them a copy. Other than it being completely illegal and the easiest way to lose our licensing agreements with the studio, it’s also impossible.
The concept of “movie” that we all have is a disc copy of a single movie that plays on a home device. A popular misconception is that the studio sends us a dvd that we play on a traditional player and then keep. If you want to steal a new release from a theater, it’s going to take a little more work.
With very few exceptions (mainly older films that haven’t been digitized or small trailer files that arrive on flash drives), the movies arrive as bulky metal hard drives and are sent back as soon as we get them into our system so the drive can be resued.
Step 1: Schedule the movie
The first step is to get the studio to allow you to show the movie in the first place. Not all movies are automatically sent to all theaters.
Before we opened, we had months of applications and contracts just to get into a licensing arrangement with the studios. They require these before we are even allowed to request film. The studios work out details of each booking with a registered person, in our case we have an independent booker. Larger chains have their own in house bookers.
Our film booker arranges the booking agreement with the studio. The studio approves our booking and either Technicolor or Deluxe will handle the distribution. The movie “print” is made and placed in a large box insulated with a thick durable foam. The movie is then sent to the theater. This can arrive in many different ways.
Step 2: Obtain the equipment to work the drive
The print itself is essentially a hard drive. However, it isn’t a hard drive that will work with our traditional computers. Theater equipment is pretty much useless to the normal person. It’s weird servers and boxes that have very limited functions. You couldn’t even move this set up into a house (for one thing, it’s massive) and use it there.
After the print arrives at the theater, usually a day or two before the movie is scheduled to play (Yea, no pressure there), we have to “ingest” the files into our system. Ingesting occurs through our Theater Management server. The drive is connected to the system and transferred. For a very basic analogy, consider iTunes and the process when you stick a cd in the computer. However, the same method doesn’t work with all movies.
The locked movie files are extremely large and the ingesting can take a couple of hours. We can only do one movie at a time, so those weeks we get multiple movies are a little tense. The movies often have multiple files that must be ingested. The sound files may be separate. The 2 and 3D files are different.
The files themselves are a special format that most of us have never heard of. It’s a file that is designed to play on theater software. They can’t even be played with our regular media playing programs. These are definitely not .mov files.
After the movie is in the system, it has to be transferred to the theaters we want to play it in. This process is also a couple hours long and can be longer when we have movies playing on all projectors. (Continuing with iTunes analogy: imagine transferring your entire music library to each device you want to play it on, without the ease of the cloud)
After the movie files are in the system, they have to be put into playlists. The file itself cannot be played alone, even after it’s unlocked. This is really frustrating at times when we just want to test the movie or see which version we have. A playlist contains all of the “cues” that trigger the automation of the theater.
If we are still thinking about iTunes, imagine not being able to push play on a song. Imagine having to create a playlist that starts with “turn ipod on, set volume to 3, start song, at the end of the song go to next song, then turn ipod off.” Essentially, this is what we do. Everything… even down to the second of black screen you see between clips… is scheduled.
The movie files come with projection sheets from the studio. These sheets give us information about the movie such as the rating/aspect ratio/when the credits start/required trailers. They basically tell us what needs to be in our playlist.
A basic playlist includes 30 seconds of black. The black will contain a cue for the projector to come on and the lamp to get warm. The curtains will move to either “Flat” or “scope” position and the lighting will adjust to the proper level. The advertising package and our preshow announcements play, each with their own volume cues. Then, the trailers start. The studio will usually tell us a couple of upcoming trailers for their movies that we have to play. They will let us play any other trailers we want, but they may tell us where those can play. For example, Tomorrowland’s projection sheet requires their trailers for Inside Out and Star Wars to play right before the movie and in that order. Does it really matter? Yes. It does. The studio sends people to screen the movies and make sure we are doing it right.
The next pieces of the playlist are the feature and some more black. The feature contains cues that turn the lights down and then back on when the credits play. It’s really neat, but all of these cues are specially programmed for the individual theater. Auditoriums 1 & 2 are not equipped for 3D and have a different audio format than the other auditoriums, so the cues are different there.
Step 3: Get the keys
Movie files are encrypted and cannot be played until the key is obtained.
After the playlist is created, we still aren’t finished. The files are still encrypted. The studio dictates when the movie can be played. Usually, we are allowed to play it a couple of hours before the first allowed showtime so we can do a quality check.
We receive a “key” for the movie and load it into the system. The key is a file that makes the movie file complete. It is time sensitive and literally will not play until the second the studio says it can play.
Furious 7 unlocked at 1 am the day of the first showing. Because it was such a big movie, I stayed at the theater overnight to make sure it played correctly. Fifty Shades didn’t unlock until 7 am the day of the movie. That was really stressful because it was our first movie and we weren’t familiar with the system so it was terrifying to think it wouldn’t play and we wouldn’t know how to fix it.
This key is probably the biggest reason why the movies cannot be copied. The projectors each have their own unique code. The keys are made specifically for that system. Each key is unique to the make/model/code of the projector. We may have a key for auditorium 2, but that movie won’t play in auditorium 4. The key is also specifically made for each version of the movie file. We have separate keys for our Atmos films, 3D films, Open Caption, Closed caption, 7.1 audio, 5.1 audio, etc. These files also go through an ingest process.
The keys are also set to end at a certain time. It might be a week long key or a few days. I’ve even had a 4 hour long key in an emergency situation. The keys expire and the movie goes back to unplayable.
So if you’ve ever considered stealing a new release from a theater, these are all of the obstacles you will have to deal with. Stealing a movie is a felony offense. Even if you’re willing to risk some time in prison for your own early copy of Poltergeist, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort of finding equipment, breaking the encryption, and actually stealing the drive. You’re better off just coming to our super comfortable theater and watching it until it comes out on DVD.