Sensory Assault: Dolby Takes on Imax With Mega-Theater Rival (Exclusive)

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Dolby, the company whose name is synonymous with sound, is looking to make some noise in the world of images. The brand is set to launch Dolby Cinema, a premium, large-format theater experience that could challenge large-format leader Imax.

Dolby is the world's top brand in theater sound. Its new Atmos immersive sound, which was introduced in 2012, has been installed in roughly 700 theaters worldwide, and its fiscal 2014 revenue of $960.2 million is more than three times that of Imax. But Imax boasts more than 800 theaters worldwide, and Dolby sees an opportunity to move in on that turf.

Dolby Cinema will include special design elements — like signature entrances that can be programmed to reflect the movie that is playing — as well as giant screens and, of course, Atmos sound. But what's really piquing the interest of filmmakers is the system's ability to project "high dynamic range," a process in which whites appear whiter and blacks blacker. Gravity's Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, for one, has said he's eager to make use of HDR. In fact, many insiders from Hollywood's technology community believe that consumers will see a noticeable difference with HDR, compared with the more widely touted "Ultra HD" 4K resolution and high frame rates.

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Initially, Dolby's new projection system will use two Christie 6P 4K laser projectors for increased brightness (at press time Dolby expected to reach 31 FootLamberts for 2D and 14 FootLamberts for 3D) along with some proprietary Dolby technology, as well as the Dolby 3D system for stereo movies. Next spring, the system, co-developed with Christie, will introduce updated laser projectors and playback technology that will enable the system to project "Dolby Vision," the newest Dolby format, which combines HDR with some proprietary color secret sauce. (At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, Dolby also introduced Dolby Vision for TV.)

Earlier this year, Dolby quietly previewed its system at the Vine Theatre in Hollywood for leading directors, cinematographers and studio executives. More recently, it has staged demos at the Harmony Gold theater in Los Angeles. The first Dolby Cinema is now set to open in early December at the new JT Cinemas complex in Eindhoven, Netherlands. San Francisco-based Dolby is offering a profit-sharing deal to theater owners, who are expected to raise ticket prices. JT Cinemas' managing director Ron Sterk says that while the adult ticket price for his theater's standard auditoriums is about $12.50, the price for Dolby Cinema will be about $18.

JT plans to open additional Dolby Cinema auditoriums in the Netherlands, including a second in June and a third in late 2015, according to Sterk. The system's early adopters also include the UCI/Cinesa La Maquinista complex in Barcelona.

Dolby will supply theaters with the equipment, which is not inexpensive — the projectors alone run several hundred thousand dollars each — while the theater would cover the cost of the buildout. "It's not cheap, but we think the economics work," Dolby senior vp cinema Doug Darrow tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting "it has to have a meaningful screen count."

Meanwhile, Imax also is in the process of launching a laser-projection-based system for its auditoriums. And Technicolor has publicly said that it, too, is working on a way to deliver HDR to the cinema using developing laser-projection technology.

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While Dolby lines up theaters in the U.S., it's busy closing studio partnerships to ensure movies will be created in Dolby Vision during postproduction. Film cameras and high-end digital cinema cameras, such as the Arri Alexa and Sony F65, can currently produce enough picture information to generate HDR images. Numerous postproduction-technology makers either support or have committed to support the Dolby Vision format.

"We are talking to all the studios. There's interest," says Darrow.

Disney is likely to be an early candidate, with J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18, 2015) waiting in the wings, as well as Brad Bird's Tomorrowland. And since Disney's 2012 Pixar hit Brave was the first film released with Dolby Atmos sound, it wouldn't be surprising if Pixar's next release, Inside Out, helps launch the Dolby Cinema brand with much fanfare when it opens in June.