The CinemaCon exhibition floor is traditionally filled with popcorn poppers, candy, cinema seats and projectors. But next year, there could be a whole new crop of exhibitors from the consumer electronics industry, such as LG, Sharp or Vizio.
Samsung showed an LED cinema screen — a large version of a video display — at this year’s just-concluded CinemaCon exhibitors convention. And there are now at least six consumer electronics and LED technology companies looking to enter the theatrical exhibition business, according to an industry insider.
While the source declined to name the companies, the reason was evident: The LED cinema screens which were introduced this year could replace conventional cinema projection with what are effectively LED video walls.
“Many of the studios think LED is the best thing since sliced bread,” said National Association of Theatre Owners head John Fithian. Presumably, studios like the new screens for their brighter picture and high dynamic range, which was been often cited among proponents of the technology. But Fiithin also added that others argue the new systems are simply a giant TV screen, and some seasoned filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, have expressed serious concerns about the technology.
Consumer tech giant Samsung has thrown its hat into the ring by launching an LED cinema screen system dubbed Samsung Onyx. The first such installation in the U.S. opened last weekend at Pacific Theatres Winnetka in Chatsworth, California. Ironically, the first motion picture to play on the new screen was Spielberg’s own Ready Player One. Samsung also has a handful of the systems installed internationally, and expects to have at least 30 installations by the end of the year.
Sony Electronics — which also offers digital cinema projectors — is developing a Crystal LED cinema screen, which was also on display at CinemaCon. Sony has emphasized that it wants to work with filmmakers to get the rollout right, but also acknowledged that it hopes to have its first LED screen in a cinema within the year. The company also reported that it will be installing an LED screen for screening and postproduction uses on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, as well as at its soon-to-open Sony Digital Media Center in Glendale, California, in order to engage filmmakers.
Projector maker Christie and Wanda Film Holdings have acknowledged that they are researching the potential of LED screens for cinema use.
“The main issue for studios is how much does it impacts their workflow; it has to be minute impact,” said Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting. “And they have to believe they are selling more tickets or supporting the exhibition industry by doing this.”
Indeed, multiple sources confirmed this concern. It would impact postproduction by creating the need for another version of a film if distributors are to take advantage of the image capabilities. That means postproduction would take more time and cost more money — and that will be a issue if the investment doesn’t deliver more revenue.
And there are also questions about sound reproduction: Today’s theaters have a front speaker behind the screen; you can’t do that with an LED wall. Samsung has introduced its own newly developed version of a sound configuration; Sony still hasn’t figured out the sound side of its equation.
And then there’s the cost of the screens themselves. Samsung’s screen falls in the $750,000 range — a huge investment compared with film or digital projectors. Back when the industry transitioned from primarily film to digital projection, the studios subsidized the exhibitors’ investment by paying a “Virtual Print Fee.” But multiple sources asserted that there’s no chance that the majors would subsidize another transition. Samsung contends that its screens have other advantages to offset costs, such as a long expected lifespan.
Meanwhile, projector maker Barco — which spun off its cinema tech services as a new company, Cinionic, whose partners also include China Film Co., Appotronics and CITICPE — presented a technology preview during CinemaCon of what it calls “light steering,” which got high marks from many who saw the demonstration. It’s a possible option that would give moviegoers a comparable brighter, HDR image, without shifting to LED technology.
The demonstration used a new high contrast HDR laser projector with “light steering” technology that effectively throws more light at parts of the image that require high brightness, but not the darker areas. “This reduces the use of heat — and therefore cost — because you don’t need as much light. You are using the light more efficiently,” explained Todd Hoddick, head of studio relations and chief revenue officer for premium cinema at Cinionic. “This opens up the promise of HDR for the masses at a ‘normal’ price point. You don’t need the brute force.”