'Hobbit' on the Hot Seat

Peter Jackson responds to critics of footage as Hollywood begins to bank on sharper pics revitalizing the box office.

Peter Jackson is so convinced he'll dazzle moviegoers with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- the first of his two 3D prequels to The Lord of the Rings, shooting at a new, higher frame rate of 48 frames per second -- that he's absorbing the extra costs of producing the movie's extensive visual effects for the new format.

But not everyone was impressed when Warner Bros. previewed 10 minutes of unfinished Hobbit footage at the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas on April 24. Several bloggers, whose complaints quickly ricocheted across the web, knocked the 48-fps scenes, claiming that doubling the traditional 24-frame rate created images that looked too brightly lit, more like HD video than a real movie.

The reception was more positive among exhibitors packed into the showroom at Caesars Palace. "I was surprised by the overreaction in the press," says National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian. And even though theater owners will have to pay to upgrade digital-projection equipment to accommodate the 48-fps format, Regal CEO Amy Miles says, "At Regal, we will be ready and able to provide the experience."

Still, the movie and format suffered a short-term publicity hit. So Jackson, 50, took time from filming in New Zealand to explain to The Hollywood Reporter that skeptics need to see the finished film. "It does take you a while to get used to," he says, noting that 10 minutes might not be enough time for viewers to acclimate. "48 works best when you settle into the experience and become absorbed in the film."

The CinemaCon footage, which included action sequences and quiet moments between Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins and Andy Serkis' Gollum, certainly was crisp and clear. Jackson says it was shot by director of photography Andrew Lesnie using Red Epic cameras with 3Ality Technica 3D rigs at a 5K resolution. (Most movies are made and projected in 2K.) But it hadn't gone through a postproduction process that will involve extensive digital color grading, adding texture and removing highlights. "We are certainly going to experiment with different finishing techniques to give the 48 frames a look that is more organic," says Jackson. "But that work isn't due to start until we wrap photography in July."

A lot is riding on Hobbit. The J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation, which hits theaters Dec. 14, is the first major film shot at 48 frames per second. (James Cameron also plans to shoot his two Avatar sequels at higher frame rates.) Many consider 48 fps the wave of the future -- Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Jeff Blake says it could "revitalize" the business -- but its adoption faces several hurdles.

Chief among them is cost, particularly when it comes to visual effects. "It should take twice as long and cost twice as much," says VFX supervisor Jeff Okun, chair of the Visual Effects Society, because creating images at 48 fps doubles the workload. Okun says "should" because it's not clear whether studios will shell out for increased VFX budgets -- reaction to Hobbit surely will affect those decisions.

Because shooting at 48 fps wasn't in the original budget for Hobbit -- about $250 million for each movie -- Jackson's Weta Digital is paying the overage. "I don't know the cost yet," he says. But it is surely several millions of dollars.

As for theater owners shelling out to upgrade their equipment, Sony is offering a software update for its existing 4K digital-cinema projectors -- about 13,000 have been installed -- at a cost of $3,000 per system. And studios, which have to prepare digital prints of their movies in multiple variations to accommodate 2D, 3D and Imax, would have to create new versions in the 48 format, adding to costs.

Theater owners could add a further surcharge for tickets to 48-fps movies. Jackson isn't in favor of that, saying, "There is no intention that I have heard to charge more." However, he does believe that some sort of consumer-friendly branding (think CinemaScope of the 1950s and '60s) will be required to encourage moviegoers to seek 48-fps theaters. But exhibition insiders, noting that theaters didn't advertise their recent switch from film to digital projectors, doubt there will be special branding in place by the time Hobbit opens.

With the movie playing in both 24 and 48 formats, Jackson argues, moviegoers will have a choice. If traditionalists have "a religious aversion to looking at The Hobbit in 48," he says, "they can see it in 24."


COMING ATTRACTIONS: 5 films whose footage stole the show at CinemaCon

  • Frankenweenie (Dis, Oct. 5) Tim Burton's 3D pic, about a dog brought back to life with a Frankenstein twist, was warmly received.
  • Total Recall (Sony, Aug. 3) Theater owners didn't expect to be so wowed by the update, which prompted comparisons to Blade Runner
  • Life of Pi (Fox, Dec. 21) Ang Lee's 3D pic -- based on Yann Martel's book about a boy and a tiger trapped on a boat -- sparked early awards buzz.
  • One Shot (Par, Dec. 21) Tom Cruise starrer based on Lee Child's novels. Exhibitors loved the action's grittiness and a car-chase scene.
  • Ted (Uni, July 13) Seth MacFarlane's raunchy pic about a man (Mark Wahlberg) and his R-rated teddy bear was the guilty pleasure.
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