CinemaCon Wrap: Technology and Business at a Crossroads

Exhibits revealed plenty of innovation driving the sights and sounds of the cinema, steering attention toward the costs of these new features.
'Inside Out'

Pixar’s Inside Out stunned during a screening in Dolby Vision. Clips from The Maze Runner encompassed audiences in Barco Escape. And snow and rain fell in Las Vegas, courtesy of CJ’s 4DX 4D system.

These are just a few of the experiences that dazzled attendees at last week’s annual theater owners confab CinemaCon, held in Las Vegas.

Technology exhibits revealed plenty of innovation driving the sights and sounds of the cinema, steering attention toward business models.

In 2014, the global box office reached $36.4 billion, but with increased competition from home entertainment, there are also declining audiences in some key demographics.

“Virtual Print Fees (created to help fund the digital cinema transition) are gone, and they’re not coming back. We have to make the experiences compelling,” warned Barco’s Todd Hoddick.

Much of the latest technology — high dynamic range, immersive sound systems, Cinerama-like theaters and laser-illuminated projectors — create experiences that cannot be replicated in the home. But they also come with notable costs.

Dolby Vision and CJ's ScreenX are two types of new technology that offer profit sharing models aimed at helping theater owners get them in house. Others are looking for creative ways to fund these premium services, including branded/sponsored auditoriums.

At one of the week's most talked about demonstrations, digital cinema insiders gave high marks to the — "stunnning" as one called it — presentation of Inside Out in Dolby Vision, and the company seemed to hint at what's ahead for Dolby Vision theaters by showing the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer in the format.

Other demos include Barco Escape's panoramic viewing experience. That company's working on the content side of the equation, previewing clips including an upcoming Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performance in the format, and more importantly, announcing a five-year, multi-film deal with Fox to release studio movies for Barco Escape theaters.

Each of these experiences — Dolby Vision, Barco Escape, 4DX to name a few — require a different version of the Digital Cinema Package (the digital equivalent of a film print). That means further complexities for studio postproduction, which in some cases already involves creating hundreds of different versions for 2D, 3D, immersive sound mixes and, of course, local languages.

“It’s going to get worse,” warned Arts Alliance Media’s CTO Rich Phillips. “And it's a distribution nightmare as well.”

Efforts are being made to standardize some of the areas, notably immersive sound, driven by standards body, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

Some insiders came to CinemaCon feeling optimistic that an impasse over standards might soon be over, while others have suggested it could get more complicated. The SMPTE committee chair, RealD’s Pete Lude, projects that standardization could be completed in early 2016.

At CinemaCon, the two main players in this space were demonstrating their systems: The systems are Dolby Atmos (the company announced it reached 1,000 screens installed or committed to) and Barco (550 screens installed or committed to). Barco revealed plans to upgrade its Auro 11.1 system to AuroMax, now an object-based system. Last fall, Barco acquired immersive sound company Iosono, and combined the technologies. An upgrade is available for existing Auro sites.

There are also multiple 4D systems, including from CJ, D-Box and MediaMation (which last week inked a deal with National Amusements to install a 4D cinema near Boston). Each currently requires a different version, and National Association of Theatre Owners technical consultant Jerry Pierce proposed that the industry look into the possibility of creating 4D standards.

Meanwhile, during the Sony presentation, it was announced that inventive director Ang Lee intends to make his next film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, in 4K, 3D and in what could be a first, at a high frame rate of 120 frames per second.

In doing so, Lee presented the next challenge for projector makers, as current models of digital cinema projectors don't accommodate this specification. Discussions are already underway.

Separately, last week, Deluxe and Technicolor announced that they are consolidating some of their mastering and distribution services in a new digital cinema joint venture, Deluxe Technicolor Digital Cinema. And, the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition unveiled new features to its content distribution network, designed to enable live IP streaming of up to two live events in HD resolultion, as well as two additional streams of non-live content.

Comments from Pierce and Phillips were made during a panel moderated by THR's Carolyn Giardina.