Imax, 4D and Dolby Atmos Mixes Trigger 'Controlled Chaos' Distribution Demands

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Evans in Air - H 2014
Marvel Entertainment

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Evans in Air - H 2014

To deliver Captain America: The Winter Soldier worldwide, Marvel and Disney had to make a whopping 350 different version -- all of which had to be completed in just 17 days in order to hit its release date, according to an executive on the production.

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This is just one example of an all-too-common scenario. With more than 95 percent of the cinema screens in North America now converted to digital, you might think it would be easier for studios to get a movie ready for distribution. But execs say that's not the case.

"Controlled chaos" is how one studio exec (who was not involved with The Winter Soldier) describes the situation. The reason is that the various options afforded by digital technologies means that multiple versions of a movie are needed. "The number has skyrocketed."

Several sources confirmed that it's not uncommon for a studio to create roughly 15 different versions of a movie for a domestic release — and some recent tentpoles have exceeded 30 different versions just for North America. These can include any combination of 2D, 3D (typically at least two versions at different light levels), possibly Imax and, in the case of The Hobbit, a high-frame-rate option. If you have a "4D" release, each of the three 4D companies -- CJ 4DPlex, MediaMation and D-Box -- require their own proprietary version.

Meanwhile, laser light projectors with the promise of offering brighter images will be made available this year — and that may require another version. Barco's recently unveiled Escape system (which creates a sort of Cinerama experience) would require another.

Want immersive sound such as Dolby’s Atmos or Barco Auro? That'll be two more versions.

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Of course, film prints are still needed for the remaining theaters, though domestic distribution of a typical tentpole title to 4,000 screens generally means fewer than 100 film prints are being created. "It’s getting harder because all of this takes time," admitted one studio exec. "There was a 100-year infrastructure in place; now you have a multiplicity of parallel processes."

This is particularly tricky when a movie is bumping up again a release date. "A turnaround time is sometime three to four weeks," says one source, "but it’s the [quality control] that kills you. Then comes international. We end up with another 100-plus versions."

The community is working on these challenges. "New formats will be problematic for a while, and then if there’s enough demand, standards will evolve and it will become easier," one source says.

"Standards will help with some of the chaos," agrees another. "But we can’t afford to stay static. This is the new normal. We get it done, but it’s not easy. We learn, we get more efficient, and then something new comes along. It’s a cycle."

Twitter: @CGinLA