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IBC Wrap: 'We Would Be Fools if We Didn't Learn From 'The Hobbit''

Digital cinema community debates laser light, immersive sound, resolution and high frame rates at confab.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Bilbo with Sword 2- H 2013
Warner Bros.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

AMSTERDAM – Audience reaction to Hollywood’s first high frame rate movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was decidedly mixed, but frame rates—along with higher resolution, laser light, immersive sound and second screen experiences were very much on the minds of digital cinema leaders last week at the International Broadcasters Convention.

During the event, this community debated how to respond to the advancements taking place in home entertainment. “TV [technology] is moving faster,” admitted Disney’s vp production technology Howard Lukk during a panel discussion. “What keeps us up at night is how [cinema] stays the premium experience.”

While a move to 4K resolution is a big topic, numerous leaders said that more pixels alone isn't the answer. They also want to see higher frame rates, a wider color gamut and expanded dynamic range.

PHOTOS: The Hard Road to 'The Hobbit'

Offering the theater owners perspective, Phil Clapp, president of the International Union of Cinemas warned that ultimately theater owners will adopt new technologies based on the business model. “Will it make a difference and can I monetize it? Or can I market it as the gold standard?”

Clapp added that attention needs to be placed on marketing, noting that the industry as a whole didn’t effectively introduce last December’s release of The Hobbit in high frame rates and "left the audience to find its way."

“The audience response might have been mixed, but there were many examples of audience numbers increasing because of the technology, and we could charge a premium for the experience,” he said. “With another Hobbit on its way, and blockbuster like the next Avatar, we would be fools if we didn’t learn from ‘Hobbit one’ and market the upcoming films accordingly.”

Representing another potential opportunity, Disney recently tested a “Second Screen Live” experience with theater audiences in conjunction with its rerelease of The Little Mermaid, and it sounds like more such examples will follow. “We have had great results with the second screen experimentation in theaters,” said Disney’s Lukk during a panel, though he didn’t elaborate.

Sound was also getting attention from conference delegates. “The single thing that will make the biggest difference … that we can do right now … to the perception of the picture, is better sound,” asserted Richard Welsch, a governor with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. “You put in cracking sound and the pictures look better.”

STORY: IBC Wrap: Broadcasters 'Face a Dilemma' on 4K TV

SMPTE was scheduled to begin a series of standards meetings in Munich immediately following IBC, and on the agenda is discussion surrounding creation of a common file format for immersive sound in Digital Cinema Packages (the digital equivalent of a film print), according to Sony’s Brian Vessa, who chairs the committee. Theater owners and other stakeholders have asked for these standards in order to protect their investments in new sound systems.

Two file format proposals have already been discussed publicly, one is DTS’ Multi Dimensional Audio (MDA) whose proponents include Barco, the company behind the immersive Auro 11.1 sound system; the other is the Atmos system from Dolby.

Laser projectors—aimed at putting more light on cinema screens (in responses to complaints that they can be too dark)—were also a topic at IBC. Projector makers Barco, Christie, NEC and Sony are also in various stages of developing or rolling out laser projectors, with Christie having already announced its first order for a 4K laser projector with support for up to 60,000 lumens from Seattle Cinerama Theatre. NEC also has a projector ready for sale, which outputs 5,000 lumens of brightness to screens up to 31 feet across, meaning that the projector would be used for small auditoriums.

These are expected to be quite a bit more expensive than current digital projectors, and UNIC’s Clapp warned that “a whole new projector will be a difficult sell, especially given where the global economy is.”

Peter Lude, co-founder of the Laser Illuminated Projector Association, told The Hollywood Reporter that he believes it could be 5 to 10 years before laser projectors become something that could be considered for any cinema screen. He noted that the target for laser projection in the next decade needs to be the equivalent of (or lower than) the cost of competing digital cinema projectors.

STORY: IBC: 8K Broadcast Planned For Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Meanwhile David Monk, CEO of the European Digital Cinema Forum, predicted that in roughly two more years it will be “game over” for film distribution.

He estimated that roughly 90 percent of the major screens are already digital—including 100 percent in Norway and roughly 90 percent in the UK, though Italy and Spain are “way behind.”

“I think in the next 12 to 18 months the landscape will change pretty dramatically,” Monk said. “When the economics change, the outlook for print stock to be cost effective is going to be extremely difficult.”