What it takes to put 'Star Wars' and other blockbusters on your seat-back screen
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What it takes to put 'Star Wars' and other blockbusters on your seat-back screen

CHEWBACCA C3PO CARRIE FISHER & HARRISON FORD STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE (1977)
AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

It's a lot more complicated than you think.

Ever wonder how R2D2, BB8 and C3PO each got their very own planes here on Earth? The deal Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) struck with Disney to make the “Star Wars” franchise part of its passenger experience is part of a long history between airlines and the studios, which goes back to the Golden Age of flight.

Film and flight have long been connected, though never as closely as they are today. The first in-flight movies were screened on planes going as far back as 1925, but these were only advertising stunts. In fact, because of the highly flammable nature of nitrocellulose film, carrying movie reels onboard was a serious safety hazard.

The first movie in first class

It was TWA, the airline founded by eccentric millionaire, film director and aviator Howard Hughes, which brought movies onboard exclusively for first class.

At the time, competitors were skeptical, but movies on TWA proved a huge success. Soon other airlines were projecting movies to their customers.

Today, blockbusters like “Star Wars” are big draws for customers, and airlines are eager to connect with franchise fans. Beyond ANA’s ongoing Star Wars partnership, other airlines have hopped on board the fandom wave of the biggest titles. Air New Zealand had a long-standing tie-in with the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” franchises. Turkish Airlines did the same with the launch of “Batman vs Superman.”

How the deal is done

Vince Cruz, a vice president at Paramount Pictures, says these campaigns are coordinated with the studio's marketing team at least a year in advance of the release of the title.

“If someone wants to do a marketing campaign it has to be done really early, just because of all the deadlines that need to be met,” he told Travel + Leisure.

Airlines around the world participate in the Airline Passenger Experience Association, an industry group that brings together airlines, studios, production specialists, and in-flight entertainment equipment manufacturers to share insights and address technical challenges. The group's annual conference gives airlines an opportunity to meet with studios and content distributors.

The airlines' close relationships with studios gives them a pick of “early-window” films to show onboard, after theatrical release but before home markets. Entertainment trends at home have pushed the industry to offer more titles and a better quality viewing experience.

“Airlines now have all this technology, they have all the server space, and need content to fill that up, which means more buying,” Cruz said.

From the studio to the clouds

Because airlines now offer a large catalogue of films and programs, and fly many different types of aircraft, with different kinds of entertainment systems, all over the world, delivering entertainment to the plane requires careful coordination.

“It used to be that you dub a tape and you send it over, but now the integrators have to build a whole set of programming, put on drives and download it onto the plane,” Cruz said. “We have clients who have hours and hours of content. The technology is getting better and better, but it is still a process to get that movie onboard.”

Tony Tavener, chief technical officer of Spafax's The Hub, based in Hollywood, works with studios and airlines to get films and television programs ready to play on seat back screens and personal electronic devices.

“We work on over 12,000 to 15,000 files per month. Our content people are always working on three month cycles, ahead for the next three months,” he said. “We'll get the order from the studio. That order will be an individual order per airline, and we'll be asked to deliver either the full theatrical version or a non-theatrical edited version. We'll add closed captions, language subtitles. We can do this in over 20 different languages, using third party specialists. We'll deliver entertainment content in many different formats: VHS, Video 8, DVDs, audio cassettes, and every format of .mp file with various bit rates. It takes four to six weeks before the film is actually onboard.”

Star Wars A New Hope
Atlaspix / Alamy Stock Photo

But are you getting the whole movie?

While there was once more censorship of content played onboard, Paramount's Cruz tells us new in-flight entertainment technology has made airlines more welcoming of different types of content.

“Back when everyone had to watch the same thing had to get a standard from an airline on their sensitivities,” Cruz said. “Today's technology allows people to have their own private screens, so editing guidelines have now relaxed a bit.”

“For example, before, horror would be a no-no. Now, some clients allow it,” he said.

But some subjects will always be taboo on planes. Any film scenes which might raise passenger anxiety levels may be cut. Movies about plane accidents, like “Sully,” for example, are unlikely to fly.

More movies and shows are coming soon

Newer in-flight entertainment systems will take advantage of connectivity on planes, letting airlines update their catalogues wirelessly from a central command system at the airline's headquarters.

“Once we can do it wirelessly it will change a lot,” Tavener said. “At the moment we're restricted to one monthly load, but in theory we can load content every time a plane arrives at the gate.” But there are sto;; technical challenges.

Julie Lichty, director of media and creative services at Panasonic Avionics, said the content airlines process every month represents a huge amount of data: “It's 7 terabytes of media processed in a month, globally,” she said. “For comparison, all of the Library of Congress is about 10 terabytes of data.”

For now, content is delivered on servers with pre-loaded drives, and Panasonic starts working with airlines 60 days before the film will ever show on the plane.

Lichty says the popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, have encouraged airlines to update their entertainment catalogs more often.

“In the past, the whole cycle was tied around print media, matching the 30 day cycle of producing the in-flight magazine,” she said. “We are on the precipice of delivering content in whatever time interval airlines deem appropriate to their customers.”

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