With digital transition of the world’s 130,000 cinema screens expected to be complete in the major territories by 2015, technology suppliers are lining up the next big technical advance with which to entice further investment from exhibitors.
Chief among these are projection systems capable of displaying frame rates higher than 24 frames a second and audio technologies promising a more immersive in-cinema sound.
Exhibitors will be encouraged to arm themselves with new technology to outpace the enhanced viewing experience of home-audio sound systems and home theatre projection.
The most urgent case is being made for High Frame Rate (HFR) technology which smooths the visual artefacts associated with fast movement, such as panning, common to 24fps screenings. It is argued that the effect is most suitable for showing films in stereo 3D where motion artefacts are more pronounced.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - shot at 48fps - will be available for 48fps 3D and 2D projection on release this December though there is a question against how many screens will be equipped to show it in this form.
The Series 2 projection and server equipment of Christie Digital, Barco and NEC, of which there are around 50,000 installed worldwide, can support HFR provided they include a video processor known as an Integrated Media Block (IMB). This overcomes the bandwidth limitations in the connection from server to projector. IMBs will cost around £8,000 in addition to a £1000 license key to show HFR content - per projector.
Rival manufacturer Sony says its 4K projectors already incorporate an IMB and simply require a firmware upgrade to project HFRs. Sony has installed 13000 4K projectors worldwide including a number across the Vue chain in the UK.
Christie, which says it holds 53% share of the total installed base of digital projectors, has pre-orders for its own IMB launching this month, but won’t be drawn on numbers.
It says that exhibitors who funded their digital cinema deployment by Virtual Print Fee could renegotiate with their VPF provider for the upgrade, while in its white paper on the topic [http://www.christiedigital.co.uk/emea/cinema/cinema-projection-solutions/high-frame-rates/pages/default.aspx] Christie also suggest that costs could be passed on at the box office.
It states: “For the most anticipated releases, premium pricing for an enhanced experience is a real, justifiable proposition for audiences. Managed right, hotly-anticipated 3D HFR movies should empower ticket up-charges.”
Jerry Murdoch, sales director of digital cinema installer Sound Associates believes that exhibitors would be happy to foot the bill. “I suspect once experienced, cinema goers will want [HDR] as a ‘standard’” he says. “If we invest in HFR [3D, 4K and new sound systems] then perhaps we can persuade people that cinema is the place to view a film – and a tiny increase in footfall would easily pay for the upgrades.”
With HFR releases limited in the short term to The Hobbit, many exhibitors may prefer to wait and see if Peter Jackson’s film provokes the same audience demand for HFR as Avatar did for 3D and consequent 3D screen conversion.
“HFR is the next big thing, more so than adoption of 4K projection systems,” says Richard Nye, Christie’s EuropeanCinema Sales Director. “It will happen on a worldwide basis but only with the impetus of a major release. Just as Dolby Stereo was boosted by Star Wars  and DTS sound was premiered by Jurassic Park  so Avatar 2 [due December 2014 and likely shot at 60fps] will likely be the lift off point for HFR.”
At the same time, exhibitors will be weighing the cost of outfitting theatres with improved audio systems. The latest development is the Dolby Atmos system which converts into 64 channels of in-theatre audio including overhead channels.
Dolby plans to debut the Atmos technology in a handful of US cinemas showing Disney/Pixar’s Brave. Jackson also plans to mix The Hobbit in the format. It can be distributed as part of the conventional Digital Cinema Print but requires installation of additional loudspeakers and amplifiers which some estimates put at £20,000 per screen.
Dolby’s technology is not alone. Other new audio formats include IMM sound and Barco Auro, both designed to match stereo 3D pictures with 3D sound.
According to Murdoch the investment for exhibitors in these new sound systems is significant “and therefore it is likely to be installed in key screens, rather than adopted throughout a chain. The on-costs for new build cinemas are small but still significant.”
There are other technologies on the horizon. Laser light projection, highlighted by Martin Scorsese at CinemaCon in April, is viewed as a serious but long term solution to delivering greater brightness to the screen, particularly for 3D. It would also save the cost to exhibitors of replacement projection lamps, which can cost £1000 a time, as well as overall power consumption.
The recent acquisition by Christie parent Ushio - a manufacturer of projection lamps - of Californian laser light specialist Necsel, points to the future of this technology.
“Laser projection is still too expensive to be commercially viable but I would expect to see product in the market within five years,” predicts Nye.