Avatar Pre-premiere Ruined by DRM Troubles

European moviegoers trying to catch a first glimpse of the 3-D version of James Cameron’s Avatar this week got an unpleasant surprise: The movie refused to play in many theaters due to a DRM problem. 20th Century Fox (s NWS) has acknowledged the issue, but declined to specify its reach. German media reports cite incidents in at least seven cities in Germany and Switzerland. All in all, more than 100 showings may have been affected.

At the heart of the problem is the digital delivery of movie files that feature very specific DRM restrictions. While they’re partially in place to prevent piracy, they’re also used to restrict the number of screens a movie can be shown on as well as the time it can be shown. In case of Avatar, this type of fine-grained control backfired.

The German IT news web site heise.de is reporting that the incident occurred during preview shows that are traditionally scheduled for the night before the official movie premiere. Moviegoers were apparently already in their seats in at least one of the theaters affected when they were informed by theater staff that the film couldn’t be decrypted. They were offered to instead watch the 2D version, which was delivered as an analog 35mm copy, or get a refund.

So what happened? The 3-D version of Cameron’s Avatar was shipped to theaters as a so-called Digital Cinema Package on a hard disk containing 150 GB of video data, which had to be copied to the theaters’ servers. All of these copies were encrypted, and accessing them required a specific DRM key, also known as a Key Delivery Message, for each and every projector. These keys include information about the time frame the movie can be played in, the projector it can be played on as well as the number of times it can be played.

The digital delivery was handled by the Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, whose web site boasts “24 hour call center support” for theaters. Apparently, that wasn’t quite enough. Theaters didn’t get working keys in time. heise.de is quoting a representative from 20th Century Fox saying the the company “very much regrets” the incident and that it’s working hard to prevent it from happening again. So far, so good:The official premiere of the movie on Thursday reportedly went ahead without incident.