Does the Future of Digital Cinema Mean the End of Motion Picture Projectors?

New projection technologies are on display at CinemaCon.
Steve Venezia, Dolby Laboratories
The Colosseum at Caesars Palace is the site for this week's CinemaCon presentations.

Digital cinema could be facing further seismic change, and the motion picture projector, a staple of movie theaters since their beginnings, could be eliminated in the process.

This week at the theater owners convention CinemaCon, several demonstrations are presenting a vision of the future where cinema projection might not even be about projecting an image on a screen. A couple of models introduce the notion of filling the screen space with side-by-side, 4K LED video panels — the type you might see used for digital signage — to make up one giant video wall that becomes, effectively, the screen. They are much brighter than today's commonly used projectors, and some configurations with these modular panels could potentially reach 8K resolution (16 times that of today’s most commonly-used 2K) — but at a cost.

With new display developments, which also include the latest in laser projection technology, come some newly proposed business models for premium large format (PLF) cinema. And with that came the biggest question of all: Who will pay for it?

GDC, the cinema tech company, on Wednesday announced a PLF theater concept that could offer imagery up to 8K resolution using Samsung LED “Cinema Screen” technology. (Yes, consumer tech giant Samsung is also at CinemaCon, doing private offsite demos of a 34-foot screen created with its modular high dynamic range 4K LED panels).

Dubbed Jetreel Cinema, the GDC model also includes an immersive sound system from Samsung-owned Harman that the company claimed could play back a Dolby Atmos version of a film. And it includes some inviting design features, including massage seats that also offer a charging station for mobile devices.

Jetreel also has a unique business model. GDC says it will provide and install the gear — meaning the cinema owner won’t have to make a large up-front investment — as part of a profit-sharing agreement.

Meanwhile, Sony is showing a dazzling demonstration of its Crystal LED 4K panels, forming a 16-foot screen at its CinemaCon exhibit suite (it plans to show a 32-foot configuration next month at the NAB Show in Las Vegas). But the company cautiously said it is “testing the waters” with exhibitors and studios to see if there’s interest for theatrical use.

Like the Samsung system, it is modular — meaning you could choose the size wanted for a theater, and a large-enough screen could result in 8K possibilities, should that be desired.

These LED systems could also accommodate high frame rates. In fact, as part of its demonstration, Sony played a clip from Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 4K at 120 frames per second format (the demo was in 2D, though the system could also accommodate 4K, 3D at 60fps). GDC said Jetreel could accommodate 60 fps — meaning that this is technology that might be of great interest to James Cameron, who has said he wants to use high frame rates in making his Avatar sequels, though most of today's cinemas are currently not equipped to handle such high frame rates.

While digital cinema technology is developing rapidly, projection manufacturers aren't ready to cede the space just yet.

The first round of digital cinema projectors, which have been in use since theaters began to transition from film, are Xenon-based systems. Now, leading projector makers such as Barco and Christie are touting laser-illuminated projectors, which have generated attention for their ability to deliver a brighter picture than Xenon-lamps (particularly for 3D). Both companies announced new laser-projector customers at CinemaCon. And Sony is demoing its first cinema laser projector.

But the issue is cost. While prices are coming down, large cinema installations require two 4K laser projectors totaling in the $1 million list range, leaving many theater owners questioning the return on investment. While LED panel costs were not revealed, it's widely believed that these will be even more expensive for a similarly sized screen.

All of this is leading to models such as ‘Sphere,' a PLF-billed brand introduced this week by CinemaNext, the exhibitor services unit of France-based Yamgis. It is designed to use lower-cost Xenon projection technology (it currently uses Sony 4K projectors) with its high dynamic range cinema presentation system ÉclairColor, immersive sound and distinct design elements.

There are many moving parts to launching any of these models, and it's certainly possible that the future of cinema will not be just one, but many models using various types of projection.

This will bring more questions to Hollywood. There will be the question of how many additional versions of a given movie might need to be created to accommodate these models, and how might that impact production schedules and postproduction budgets.

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