A new wave of technologies aims to further enhance the theatrical experience. But will exhibitors be receptive after the costly transition to digital? By John Hazelton.
The global exhibition industry’s digital conversion may be substantially over - insiders estimate that 75%-80% of the world’s cinema screens have now gone digital, with penetration at 85% in the US and 100% in parts of Asia and Europe - but that doesn’t necessarily mean the industry is about to take a technology time-out.
In fact, the transition might eventually look like a precursor to a series of other smaller, but still significant, technological advances.
“The capabilities of digital are still expanding, so that’s the engine that’s driving the technology revolution,” says Damian Wardle, VP of worldwide theatres technology and presentation at US and Latin American circuit Cinemark Theatres.
The transition was, of course, hugely expensive for exhibitors, with conversion costs of $70,000-$80,000 per screen being only partially offset by the virtual print fees the studios agreed to pay to theatre circuits. And it didn’t produce any direct financial benefits for exhibitors, other than increasing their options for offering alternative content like concerts and sports events.
‘3D is still a big upside for the film business’
Chris McGurk, Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp
It did, though, lead to the 3D boom and the extra income exhibitors were able to earn by increasing the regular ticket price for 3D screenings.
In the US at least, that income has declined over the past 18 months as movie-goers have become more selective about 3D films. But in emerging international markets such as Russia and China, “3D is still huge,” says Chris McGurk, chairman of Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp. “And the pricing is still up where everybody wishes it still was in the US. It’s still a big upside for the film business.”
In the US, meanwhile, exhibitors are hopeful that studios have now learned to be more judicious with the format. The success of an adult-oriented 3D film such as Life Of Pi “shows that the use of the genre has really broadened”, argues Neil Katcher, SVP of facilities, sight and sound at major US circuit AMC Theatres. “That bodes well for the future.”
Given the cost of the digital switch, exhibitors may themselves be selective about some of the emerging technologies that digital has made possible and that are now being touted by entertainment technology suppliers.
Exhibitors, says John Fithian, president of the US National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), “are not looking to turn around and spend a whole lot more money on new technologies immediately, because we’re still going through this transition”.
Still, vendors suggest that cinema owners will buy into the new developments to better compete with the convenience of fast-evolving home entertainment gadgets.
Exhibitors, says Brian Claypool, senior director of strategic business development at European visualisation products company Barco, “are thirsty for ways to keep people coming into cinemas and not staying at home watching their iPads”.
Cinema operators and audiences got their first taste of one new technology, high frame-rate (HFR) digital projection, late last year with the release of the 48 frames per second 3D version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Technology experts suggest that HFR could significantly improve the digital cinema experience at relatively small cost to exhibitors. Many cinemas using Series 2 digital projectors - almost 60,000 of which are thought to be installed worldwide - are already capable of showing HFR films, and the rest could be made ready for less than $10,000 each.
The concern for exhibitors is that the supply of HFR films will be too small to justify even that fairly modest expense. As yet, the only confirmed HFR projects in Hollywood’s pipeline are two more Hobbit films and the sequels to groundbreaking 3D smash Avatar.
Motion-effect systems - which add moving seats and other live effects to the cinema experience like wind and lightning - carry a much higher price tag but could, claim their backers, pay off more directly for exhibitors.
The 4DX system, currently installed in 15 Korean locations, 13 in Mexico and a dozen elsewhere, allows exhibitors to increase prices by as much as $6-$8 a ticket, according to 4DX Americas head of operations Theodore Kim, and can substantially boost cinema attendance and occupancy rates.
“We’ve proved that it works in Asia and South America, and in growing markets like Russia,” says Kim. “Now we are slowly trying to penetrate Europe and the US.”
Laser projection has been demonstrated at several recent industry events, showing exhibitors “how truly spectacular a 3D experience can be when it’s shown at the proper light levels”, says Don Shaw, senior director of product management at projector company Christie Entertainment Solutions.
‘Exhibitors are thirsty for ways to keep people coming into cinemas and not staying at home watching iPads’
Brian Claypool, Barco
While laser projectors will initially be too expensive for use in anything but IMAX and other big screen cinemas, they might eventually serve to reignite enthusiasm for the 3D format.
“Laser could help the entire industry by making for brighter 3D experiences,” says David Keighley, IMAX’s chief quality officer. “And though the audience may not be able to articulate it, they will like the stories better, because they won’t be fighting to see [the images on screen] as much as they do now.”
Perhaps the most widely employed - and potentially controversial - of the new exhibition technologies will be immersive audio.
Of the two leading immersive systems, Dolby Atmos has so far been used on the production and exhibition of films including Taken 2, The Hobbit and Life Of Pi, and Barco’s Auro 11.1 on projects including Red Tails and several Indian titles. Films released in both formats have included Rise Of The Guardians, Oz The Great And Powerful and The Croods.
Recently, however, NATO and the Union Internationale des Cinémas (UNIC) jointly released a set of “exhibitor requirements for immersive sound technologies” designed to avoid a repeat of the incompatibility problems encountered in the 1990s with three competing digital sound formats (Dolby, DTS and Sony).
Technology vendors have responded cautiously to the call for open standards in immersive audio.
“We certainly agree that exhibition should not have to make an investment in a technology that would potentially disappear,” says Stuart Bowling, senior worldwide technical marketing manager at Dolby Laboratories. But, he adds, “Having an open standard to a degree can stifle innovation.”
Exhibitors, not surprisingly, have a slightly different view.
Says Dan Huerta, VP of sight and sound at AMC (which is currently testing both immersive systems): “As a company and as an industry we don’t want to go through what we did with the film-based digital-audio scenario, where you had three very different competing technologies. We just don’t want to go through that pain again.”
Selected cinema technologies
High Frame Rate (HFR)
Proponents suggest that films shot and projected at 48 or more frames per second (compared to the usual 24) give audiences a more realistic visual experience and eliminate the eye and headache problems that some viewers have with conventional digital 3D. Most current digital projectors can be made HFR-ready - through a software upgrade or hardware addition - for less than $10,000.
Immersive or 3D audio platforms use additional speakers and software to create sound effects around and above an audience. The Dolby Atmos system, currently used in 80 screens around the world, costs around $70,000 to install in a large auditorium. The Barco Auro 11.1 system, based on existing 5.1 surround sound and currently employed in 55 screens worldwide, costs $40,000 to $90,000 for a big screen.
Set to start appearing in some bigger cinemas towards the end of this year, laser cinema projectors will create much brighter images than xenon lamp-based digital projectors, making 3D movies look as bright as current 2D offerings and allowing exhibitors to employ bigger screens. However, the first laser projectors are expected to cost as much as $500,000 each, 10 times as much as xenon projectors.
Technologies such as 4DX and D-Box employ electronically controlled cinema seats that move in sync with a film’s on-screen action as well as, in the case of 4DX, auditorium effects such as wind, fog, lightning and scents. A 200-seat auditorium can be equipped with 4DX for $2m or less, with technology creator CJ 4DPlex (part of South Korean film group CJ Entertainment) covering half that cost.