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Digital Cinema Media (DCM) brokers 80% of on-screen cinema advertising in the UK, and IT director Simon Rose is looking to balance innovation in areas such as mobile and analytics with crucial infrastructure demands.
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Since 2010, Rose has been leading the technology efforts at DCM, which collects movie theatre film schedules from all its partners – including Odeon, Cineworld, Vue and many independent cinemas across the country – then sells the advertising space that precedes films.
DCM is connected to about 470 sites – about 3,000 screens in total. This will rise in 2016 due to expansion at Cineworld and Vue, as well as a new client, Curzon Cinemas, which will add more screens to the company’s portfolio.
“We need to try to balance our infrastructure investments with the business needs,” Rose tells Computer Weekly. “When I joined the company, the technology infrastructure was ancient, out of date and needing an enormous amount of updating, which we’ve done.
“Technology [at DCM] has focused more on business systems, integrating with our partners electronically and automating processes. But we can’t ignore the technical changes – we need to keep that moving. It’s a matter of balance, trying to resolve infrastructure transformation alongside business improvement and process improvement.”
Getting smarter with analytics
Despite the large amount of data and processes that it handles, DCM has only 70 users running on a conventional IT estate of PCs and a few Macs with Office 365. Its main applications are a digital cinema scheduling platform, Digital Accord, from Norwegian supplier Unique Digital, which has been heavily customised over the years. The company also uses IBM Cognos business intelligence and Microsoft SQL Server as core platforms.
Data collected by DCM from the various sites it interacts with is brought together into a Microsoft SQL Server data warehouse and published into Digital Accord, where the firm holds all the advertising campaigns it has sold. Campaigns are then scheduled against films and content, and advert playlists are sent to all the cinemas it supplies.
On average, DCM sends about 80,000 playlists a week to cinemas, with around 20 adverts in each – which means 1.6 million ads a week are scheduled through the company’s system.
“Because we’re already running our main scheduling platform on AWS, there is potential to exploit machine-learning capabilities within that”
Simon Rose, Digital Cinema Media
According to Rose, the firm receives logs back from each of the projectors playing the adverts, informing it which adverts have played at what time and on which screen.
The playlists themselves are quite small and published via a web service, so a theatre management system (TMS) at each site can pick up what it needs for each showing.
“We also get admission figures from all the cinemas, so we know how many people have seen those adverts,” he says. “We reconcile all that data and run down the campaigns based on the admissions we have delivered for our clients.”
The adverts are referred to as digital cinema packages (DCPs), which are large files sent to cinemas over IP or satellite, depending on the internet connectivity at each site.
The technical infrastructure for core DCM systems such as Digital Accord has been running on Amazon Web Services (AWS) for two and a half years, and the remaining infrastructure has been virtualised to run on Windows Server 2012.
“Part of next year will be spent moving the remaining services either into the AWS cloud or into Office 365, depending on the demands of the business and the needs of the technology,” says Rose.
To profile film audiences, DCM uses third parties to provide demographic data that is overlaid onto its cinema information. This results in data on the kind of people who go to particular cinemas and the type of films they like to see, which helps in sales and marketing.
DCM uses Cognos for bookings capture as well as for inventory forecasting and analytics, while SQL Server reporting services are used for straightforward reporting.
“At the moment, nearly all the data is for internal use, but there is an increasing expectation that we will have to publish data to clients and to the cinemas themselves as they are expecting us to add more value,” says Rose.
There is a possibility that aspects of what DCM does could be dealt with through machine learning by looking at how processes are delivered manually today or seeing whether they can be improved, he adds.
“Because we’re already running our main scheduling platform on AWS, there is potential to exploit machine-learning capabilities within that,” says Rose.
“We also must get smarter with our reporting and data analytics and exploit some of the aspects of Cognos that we have but haven't used yet, things like predictive analytics. It’s a very dangerous place to be when you start thinking about finding problems for solutions you’ve got in mind. Things really need to be driven by the business, so you can choose the appropriate technology to solve the problem.”
Rose’s team’s immediate priority is to ensure DCM can support Curzon Cinemas and integrate the cinema chain into its platform by 1 January 2016.
“We need to make sure we can connect the playlists and the content delivery platform to their equipment,” says Rose. “And we have to spend time integrating with their systems, so they can provide the movie schedule and the admissions data to us.
“There is a little bit of work on the recipient end and our end, so we can accept those feeds and process them like we do for other exhibitors. The preliminary set-up is all complete, which is great. All the fundamental infrastructure is in place, and we’re just working through each of the sites with Unique Digital, testing configurations and making sure we are ready for our go-live.”
Beyond integrating with Curzon, DCM’s goal for the next few months is to look at improvement areas such as campaign reconciliation processes, which entail working with playback data to get a more detailed view of ad display.
“Given the relatively unpredictable nature of films, some cinemas will frequently change their movie schedules to ensure they maximise their auditoriums if a film performs brilliantly or, occasionally, worse than expected,” says Rose.
“This presents a challenge for us, because showings can change time or screen very quickly, and we need to be able to match playlists to shows, even if the show has changed screen late in the day – which is made more complicated because of the range of technology in use across those 470 sites.”
Ensuring data quality
Another challenge DCM faces is data quality and ensuring that data is delivered consistently and effectively. Projectors and cinema systems can be shut down overnight, which makes it difficult when data needs to be collected.
“If we owned the technology from scheduling to playback, lots of these processes would be easier, but as we’re a partner to numerous businesses, we have to adapt and develop systems and processes across a range of equipment types that the cinemas own,” says Rose.
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Automation is another mantra for IT at DCM, because some of the company’s data processing tasks take up a lot of time and resource. To that end, Rose wants to automate processes to streamline workflows through the business.
“Automation is going to be a prominent aspect of what we’re doing for the next year or two,” he says.
“It will be about tuning what we have – and we already automate quite a few things. We’ve had to do that because the cinema business has been transformed in the past four years – we were used to producing 3,000 playlists a week; now we're doing 80,000.
“Lots of menial tasks have already been automated, but we’re just finding more opportunities to streamline processes to make the number of tasks easier to manage and tweaking what we’ve got, rather than adding complexities to the systems.”
Exploiting new technologies
Beyond improving the existing set-up, Rose believes there are new technologies that could improve the operation at DCM, such as iBeacons for indoor positioning and supporting interaction with that platform within cinemas.
“There is certainly information we could glean from iBeacons to understand who passes through the cinema when ads are being placed,” he says. “It would be nice to co-ordinate playout in digital foyer panels through to on-screen advertising.”
Rose and his team have also ventured into interactive advertising though Cinime, an app developed by DCM in partnership with YummiMedia. Despite the app’s success, the IT director says mobile presents the cinema advertising industry with a “slight dilemma”.
Simon RoseDigital Cinema Media
“One of the attractions of cinema advertising is the fact that the audience is focused on the big screen rather than being diverted by a second screen,” he says. “We need to balance that with knowing that customers are going to auditoriums and they look at their phones – they don’t turn them off.
“It’s just a balance between a customer who is focused on the big screen and exploiting that perfect presentation environment, or making it more entertaining and engaging with a device they are going to have in their hand anyway. It’s a fine balance that you’ve got to get across.”
Rose adds: “The cinema auditorium is a place where you can finally escape and get away from the outside world. So it’s a commercial dilemma but an interesting one, as people do still take their phones out. They don’t necessarily make calls, but there is messaging and social media and all that stuff going on, all the time.”
The past year has been all about exploiting what DCM has rather than introducing “new, shiny things”, says Rose. While this has had a positive effect on the bottom line, he describes the situation as a “double-edged sword”.
“If we’re not looking at new technical opportunities in some way, shape or form, then there is the potential that we are going to miss a trick or a solution that could help the business be more efficient or faster at what it does,” he says.
“Things are a little bit more focused and it's good for the business, but there is a danger that we start to miss the potential of some of these tools. Presenting and highlighting new technical opportunities has become part of my role.”