'Star Wars' Dolby Cinema Release Could Push Forward the New Format

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Still - H 2015
David James/Lucasfilm/Disney

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Still - H 2015

Disney and Dolby announced Monday what anyone watching this space already knew — Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be available in the Dolby Cinema high dynamic range format. When tickets sales opened, that already included Dolby Cinema theaters.

But this release also underscores a wider effort to generate interest in the Dolby Vision format, on the part of Disney and Dolby, as well as The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams' production company Bad Robot. And the high- profile Force Awakens could be just what the fledging format needs.

Dolby has been dancing around acknowledging that The Force Awakens was getting a Dolby Cinema release for quite some time. It all but confirmed it last spring at CinemaCon when it showed the trailer for The Force Awakens in Dolby Vision (the Dolby Cinema imaging format) — and continued to use Star Wars imagery in Dolby Vision marketing presentations all year.

Disney also debuted a Dolby Vision version of Disney/Pixar's Inside Out at CinemaCon, helping Dolby to launch the format. The first Dolby Vision release was last spring with Disney's Tomorrowland, and Inside Out was close behind. Disney also has announced that its upcoming The Jungle Book will be a Dolby Vision release when it opens  April 16, 2016. The studio also has demonstrated its commitment by constructing a grading theater equipped to support Dolby Vision.

The team at Bad Robot previewed the Dolby Vision format long before it was unveiled at CES in January 2014 and it, too, is clearly interested. In fact, footage from Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness was remastered in the Dolby Vision format and used as part of the 2014 demonstrations when Dolby unveiled the format. Presumably the sequel Star Trek Beyond, which Bad Robot will release in 2016 with Justin Lin directing, will have a Dolby Cinema release.

Monday's announcement included the following statement from Abrams: “Dolby Cinema technology is an epic, premium way to go to the movies. I am honored to be a part of the continuation of the Star Wars saga, and can’t wait for people to see The Force Awakens through the power of the Dolby experience.”

Since the format is still very new, there are just 10 confirmed theaters worldwide that will be equipped to show The Force Awakens in the Dolby Vision format or in Dolby Cinema (a full-theater configuration that includes Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos sound) next month. That includes Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime locations in California (Burbank), New York,  Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, plus two in Texas. It also includes two Dolby Cinema locations in the Netherlands, as well as the Disney-owned El Capitan in Hollywood, which has Dolby Vision projection and Dolby Atmos sound.

Dolby is working to increase its Dolby Cinema screen count, including an expected total of 100 AMC Prime locations by 2024. To date 15 titles have been announced or released for a Dolby Cinema release, with at least one from each major studio. These include upcoming releases Lionsgate's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Warner Bros.' In the Heart of the Sea and the aforementioned Disney's The Jungle Book. 

Dolby Vision requires a separate color grade and mastering process. The Hollywood Reporter has learned that Deluxe-owned postproduction house Company 3 and its leading colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld are doing the color grading on The Force Awakens, which presumably means that it includes the Dolby Vision version.

Company 3 has an HDR-equipped grading theater at the Santa Monica facility that it opened in 2014. That suite has already been used for HDR grading for various titles including Life of Pi, which 20th Century Fox is prepping for an HDR home video release (in a nonproprietary HDR format, not Dolby Vision).

It's possible that some of the HDR mastering for The Force Awakens might be completed in-house at Bad Robot, which has several Dolby Vision-supported SGO Mistika postproduction systems, or in Disney's HDR suite.

Meanwhile, for A Force Awakens, a different flavor of HDR — meaning there's a wider range between the blackest blacks and whitest whites — is offered in Imax theaters using Imax's new laser projection system.

HDR also is coming to the home with various models of HDR-supported Ultra HDTVs from the likes of Samsung and Vizio. Plus, this holiday season Ultra HD Blu-Ray, a new Blu-Ray format that is capable of supporting Dolby Vision or nonproprietary HDR formats, will launch.

Fox and Sony have already announced titles that will be released for Ultra HD Blu-Ray with the nonproprietary HDR format; both also have released Dolby Vision movies for theatrical release (Fox's Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and The Martian, plus Sony's Pixels and The Perfect Guy). Disney hasn't yet announced Ultra HD Blu-Ray titles, though, presumably, we could expect a Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ultra HD Blu-Ray bonanza with Dolby Vision support during 2016. (A Dolby Vision supported TV is needed to view this version).