Warners is taking what Dan Fellman, the studio’s president of domestic distribution, describes as a “prudent” approach in terms of the number of theaters that it will use to introduce the higher-frame-rate version of Peter Jackson’s upcoming The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in December.
While the movie will have a wide release on Dec. 14, most theaters will play the movie at 24-frames-per-second, which has been the standard frame rate since the arrival of talkies. While, Fellman said, a 48 fps version of the movie will be made available in “all major markets in North America,” it will play only in selected theaters. “In terms of going into thousands of theaters, we will not,” he said.
“We’re going to New Zealand at the end of the month to meet with Peter. We are in line with him to have a platform release, and we’ll present a couple of choices,” Fellman said. He added that the studio plans to follow a similar strategy in international markets. Imax will additionally have a number of theaters playing a 48fps 3D version of the film.
Jackson’s The Hobbit is the first major motion picture to be shot at a higher frame rate of 48fps. Proponents of high frame rates say it creates a more lifelike image and truer illusion of continuous movement, in particular by improving 3D and action sequences by eliminating or greatly reducing motion artifacts such as blur.
Jackson previewed some unfinished Hobbit footage at 48fps at April’s CinemaCon, where it was greeted by mixed reactions. Detractors argued that it looks too real, resembling video. But Fellman said, the studio isn’t backing away from their commitment to the new process as some have charged. “We want to make sure we do it properly and make sure the public sees it in its best form,” Fellman said. “We are very committed to this. [High Frame Rates] is the most important change in exhibition, probably since the introduction of sound.”
The Hobbit represents pioneering filmmaking from Jackson, and a potentially major change in exhibition, because high frame rate support requires upgrades to currently installed digital cinema equipment.
Series 2 projectors from Barco, Christie and NEC will be able to show a movie at 48fps with a currently available software upgrade and a piece of hardware called an “integrated media block” with 48 fps support. Don Shaw, senior director, product management, Christie Entertainment Solutions, estimated that from a technology standpoint, it might be possible to get to as many as 5,000-10,000 such installations completed worldwide by the end of the year.
Last spring, Sony reported that roughly 13,000 Sony 4K digital cinema projectors had shipped worldwide, and “the majority of those screens” would be upgraded this year.
But Fellman said that while exhibitors “are thrilled with the process,” testing and education about the new gear will be needed in the exhibition community.