PRIMA Cinema brings in-the-theaters movies home for $500 each … and it’s worth it!

Prima Cinema 2Most people love movies. And since you are currently reading a tech site, I’m going to assume that you are probably more a movie lover than most people. But while people love movies, what they don’t love so much is the experience of actually going to the movies. Take your pick from the many possible reasons: Inconvenience, poor performance, the glaring red EXIT light that shines on the screen like a vengeful overlord, the floors sticky with food and DNA spillings of countless others, the rude behavior of other movie goers, the high-priced snacks, that masochistic love-hate relationship with synthetic butter…

PRIMA Cinema is a new company that wants to bring day-and-date viewing of first run movies right to your home.

Further exacerbating the issue is that technology has advanced to the point where many people now own home theater systems that rival or exceed the commercial experience. Better sound, no blown speakers or crackling drivers, and a big bright image from a projector lamp that some GM isn’t trying to wring the last few miserable hours out of. With high-definition Blu-ray discs or Vudu or Netflix streaming, you can enjoy movies on-demand and in all the sit-on-my-couch-in-my-underwear-with-a-glass-of-scotch-so-big-it’s-an-affront-to-God splendor you can handle.

But if you want to see the latest films, you’ve got two choices: Wait the months until they are available on some form of home video, or suck it up, put on some pants, and then venture down to the local Cineplex.

Well, those were the only two options before PRIMA Cinema came along. PRIMA Cinema is a new company that wants to bring day-and-date viewing of first run movies right to your home.

Think ticket prices are outrageous?

First, let’s get the nasty business out of the way: PRIMA is expensive. Like, “Am I going to buy the Patek Philippe or get the new Jaguar F-Type?” expensive. The hardware costs $35,000 and then each movie is $500. Unless it’s in 3D. Then it’s $600. (If you are thinking about immediately scrolling down to the comment box and writing, “$500 for a movie?!? This is the stupidest thing ever! I can Torrent the movie for free! Anyone that buys this is a total sucker!!!” may I ask that you just do us all a favor and quit reading and move along? PRIMA is clearly not for you. And guess what? They are totally OK with that.)

As cool as PRIMA is – and trust me, it is frickin’ amazingly cool – they are not (yet) targeting the average Joe movie-goer. They are (clearly) going after the luxury segment of the market that is building six- and seven-figure home theater systems where money takes a back seat to experience and convenience. Before I talk about the tech – and, I promise, I will – think about this: If you are in the 1 percent – someone that owns a private jet and thinks nothing about the $20,000 in fuel it takes to fly up to Nova Scotia in your Lear jet to see the total eclipse of the sun, or who buys futures in cases of Chateau Margaux – then $500 for a movie is nothing. And instead of having to deal with the huddled masses at the communal neighborhood movieplex, how much better would it be to have a dozen friends over for a dinner party and then watch the latest blockbuster cosseted in the velvet and leather luxury of your private media room?

To my knowledge, I am one of the very first (if not only) reviewers to actually get their hands on a PRIMA Cinema system for more than just a 30-minute, behind-closed-doors demo. I had one. In my house. Lived with it for almost two weeks. Felt it. Touched it. Watched movies on it. Then wept bitterly when it left.

Prima-Cinema-12 small

So, when you get your heart and wallet right and decide that you’re willing to invest the $35,000 in a PRIMA, here is how it goes down. First, a dealer comes out to your house and does a site survey. As I mentioned, they are not looking to just glut the market with PRIMA players, but rather are very choosey over where the systems are installed. This is for private viewing in a residence. That means you can’t put it in a bar or hotel, or try and start your own theater by telling your buddies to all chip in $50 and come over and watch a movie. Your theater needs a minimum number of seats, but also can have no more than 25.

Security up the wazoo

If you haven’t heard, Hollywood is kinda uptight with things like piracy and people stealing movies, and has this idea that you should actually pay to be able to watch someone’s $200,000,000 intellectual property. I know, crazy. So, to get the blessing of studios, PRIMA has incorporated numerous security checks and counter-measures into their system. For instance, your home needs a static IP address so it can be added to PRIMA’s white-list. Should the IP address change, the system will stop working. This is one of many security features the system employs. And by many, I mean M-A-N-Y. (PRIMA assured me there were features employed they didn’t even mention to me.) So, if you think you are gonna game PRIMA, well, you’ll probably end up with a $35,000, 46-pound brick.

Don’t mess with your PRIMA.

Other features include the system being “assigned” to a specific dealer for a specific client before it leaves the factory. So, should a PRIMA just randomly show up on your doorstep, dial back your planned happy dance, cause it won’t work. This also means that if a PRIMA meant for a customer in California went to a dealer in Florida, it won’t work. Also, don’t get any wild ideas about carrying the PRIMA from your theater to your bedroom; it’s equipped with an accelerometer and if tripped, the system will lock up. Plus, the system is married to the unique EDID – Extended Display Identification Data – of the devices (like a receive and projector) in you home theater. Should that change… another lock-up. Curious what is inside the milled-aluminum casing of the Prima chassis? Don’t be. Removing any panel on the unit causes it to lock up and stop working.

Should the unit lock-up, the installing PRIMA dealer needs to come out to the site and unlock the unit with a uniquely assigned PSK (Personal Security Key) and their fingerprint. So, yeah. Don’t mess with your PRIMA.

Under the hood

When the system arrived at my home, I was initially taken by how heavy it was. I mean, it is essentially a 2TB drive with decoding and playback software so it should weigh like 5 or 10 pounds, right? Obviously, there is a ton of build quality with lots of milled aluminum and, I don’t know, Elven magic and unobtanium, but I was told that the majority of the weight is due to the numerous security features. The PRIMA system is two parts, the movie player and the biometric fingerprint reader. The player is a totally plain on the front, with a back-up fingerprint reader concealed behind a fold down aluminum panel. The rear panel is a striking purple anodized aluminum, which stands out like a fully presenting peacock amidst the traditional rack of soulless A/V gear.

Prima Rear Panel Purple

The system is outfitted with numerous redundancies to ensure that – in true Hollywood tradition – no matter what happens, “the show must go on…” (Well, if the house loses power you’re out of luck.) There are dual power supplies, dual Ethernet connections, and dual HDMI outputs (the second carrying audio only). The fingerprint reader is a cool-looking device with tons of angles and facets that undoubtedly gave the industrial designer a serious tech-chub when he came up with it. It connects via standard networking cable and is powered over Ethernet (PoE).

The hookup

As far as the actual install goes, it took about 5 minutes; connect HDMI to my pre-pro, connect the PRIMA movie player and fingerprint reader to my network, connect the PRIMA to power and turn that bad girl on. After that, they enrolled my fingerprint via the biometric scanner. This took a few tries as PRIMA didn’t like either of my index fingers or my middle finger (clearly worn away by millions of aggressive keystrokes) but my thumb worked like a champ and I was ready to watch.

(Another note on security…before you can view or purchase a movie, the registered PRIMA member must swipe their enrolled fingerprint. So don’t plan on raiding someone’s theater and racking up a multi-thousand dollar Prima Fingerprint Scanmovie bill. That’s why there is a back-up reader on the player, so you can still purchase a film should one or the other fail. Also, if you think you’ll just take over a PRIMA member’s house, stuff him into a cinderblock filled safe, and whack his finger off Saw-style and use it to watch movies…the reader has a liveness detector and won’t work with a detached digit. Bummer, I know.)

Once connected, the system is ready to use with no configuration to do whatsoever. Like none. If you turn on your system and can see and hear an image, congratulations, you are enjoying maximum PRIMA Cinema performance!

Performance

And what a performance it is. First, I’m kind of a geek about Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs). After having reviewed high-end gear for years, I’ve seen GUIs of all sorts, and I can tell you, the look and simplicity of PRIMA’s GUI is top notch. The entire control scheme – via IP and supported by both an iOS app and automation systems like Crestron and Control4 – is limited to just up, down, left, right, enter and built around browsing high-res poster art and still frames from the films. You are given two options, “Coming Soon,” which displays upcoming movies with their release dates, synopsis and trailer (if available), and “Now Showing,” which displays all of the titles available for instant viewing.

All of the content – trailers and movies – resides on the hard drive; meaning all films are downloaded, not streamed. This means there is no buffering or chance that a movie will stop should the network crash for some reason. Films are downloaded in the background and don’t appear until they are completely finished. I didn’t notice any drain on my Internet speed with the PRIMA in place.

As I mentioned, movies are $500 a piece ($600 for 3D titles) and that price gets you one viewing. When you buy the film, it starts and from that point you have 24 hours to complete your viewing. You can pause at any point, meaning that quick trips to the bathroom or intermissions to refresh your dram of Glen Fiddich 25 year are no problem – but you can’t rewind or fast forward. When the movie ends – or the 24-hours is up – you may buy the film again. Fortunately, trailers are free and you can watch as many of them as often as you want. While I had the PRIMA, there was a free presentation of La Boheme, but after watching 45 minutes of it, I decided two things: 1) I am clearly not an opera fan and 2) even free was too much to pay.

I watched five movies during my time with PRIMA –Identity Thief, Les Miserables, Hyde Park on Hudson, This Is 40 and Promised Land – and each one produced audio and video that could only be described at stunning. The image has a pristine, perfectness to it that is only visible on the very finest Blu-ray transfers. But even then, it was better. Just razor sharp, with incredible detail and completely and utterly noise free. Blacks were clean, deep, rich and black. This is because the 1080p/24 video is encoded at better-than-Blu-ray 4:2:2, 10-bit resolution, and the extra information was evident on my 115-inch screen. Audio is multi-channel LPCM and also sounded terrific.

I never experienced any stutters, glitches or hiccups during playback. I selected a movie, scanned my fingerprint, paid brief homage to the anti-piracy warning screen, and then settled back to watch the movie just as if I were in a theater.

Anti-Piracy(Think you’re gonna get all sneaky with a video camera or screen capture software and make a digital copy of the film? Well, every film is watermarked—differently for every system and for every viewing on that system—so if  you try that well, PRIMA’s gonna know about it.)

PRIMA said it can support High Frame Rate (HFR) films in 2D, but not 3D. It supports 3D with each eye receiving a full 1080p/24 signal with 10-bit 4:2:2 quality. Also, the current platform does not support 4K, but this is something that PRIMA is working on, saying “the issue is not about tech – it’s about a real market for such technology at this time (i.e., there needs to be valuable content for PRIMA and a sizable population of displays).”

As you might have inferred from the list of films that I elected to watch, content is currently the biggest limitation of the PRIMA system. During my time with the system, there were only 10 titles available for viewing. (Though, admittedly, the period right after the Oscars is not usually the most fertile time for new releases) I was hoping to be able to watch Zero Dark Thirty or Jack the Giant Slayer or Oz the Great and Powerful, but, no. That’s because PRIMA currently only has deals in place with Universal (a major investor), Lionsgate, Focus Features, Cinedigm, and Magnolia, though they assured me they have “negotiations ongoing with virtually everyone in Hollywood.”

Bottom line? Yes, PRIMA is expensive. And, yes, currently the content available for viewing is limited. But PRIMA is a proof-of-concept that day-and-date viewing of first-run films at home can work, and I assure you that it is awesome. If more studios get comfortable with the idea, PRIMA could definitely point to the future of movie viewing.

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