Showeast 2012: Major Exhibitors Sign for High Frame-Rate 'Hobbit' Despite Format Challenges

James Fisher/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Warners' decision to open HFR 3D in just 400 theaters domestically is "a blow" to some manufacturers who hoped for a faster roll-out.

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Major exhibitors Regal and AMC lined up Tuesday to support Warner Bros. as it readies for the Dec. 14 U.S. release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the high frame rate of 48 frames per second. Meanwhile, the studio moves cautiously with its plans to introduce the theater technology, which has encountered a number of problems as it goes through a testing phase.

At last spring’s trade shows such as the NAB and CinemaCon, digital cinema manufacturers of projection equipment greeted the move to 48 fps enthusiastically – and at the time, although Warners had not yet signaled its plans, some sources within the industry predicted there would be "tens of thousands" of screens ready for Hobbit’s wide roll-out. Instead, Warners has decided to offer Hobbit in what is being called HFR 3D as a platform release, using 400 screens domestically, that will include 90 screens from Regal and 92 from AMC along with another 500 in international markets. The majority of theaters will show the movie at the traditional frame rate of 24 fps.

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The studio’s decision to take it slow has been "a blow" to some manufacturers, in the words of MKPE Consulting president Michael Karagosian. "Several manufacturers set aside profitable projects to switch resources to supporting HFRs for Hobbit," he said.

"We put the money into it," admitted Gary Johns, senior vp of digital cinema solutions at Sony Electronics. "The opportunity for sales is diminished, though we think we will get there. I’m sure it will be back. We think HFRs is great thing."

In order to bring the capability to theaters, manufacturers have focused on offering HFR-supported projectors and required hardware, called Integrated Media Blocks, or IMBs. Right now, equipment manufacturers and exhibitors are working overtime to get equipment ready, tested and installed since the use of HFR 3D is a first for a Hollywood movie.

When the planned platform release was first revealed last August, Warners president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman told The Hollywood Reporter that the studio was taking a "prudent" approach to the release, saying, "We want to make sure we do it properly and make sure the public sees it in its best form. We are very committed to this. [High frame rates are] the most important change in exhibition, probably since the introduction of sound."

Converting to HFR 3D is a complex process with various moving parts. Exhibition testing is continuing and not all the sites that will make up the total screens have been equipped or have even been selected yet.

"It's a high profile fail, should you fail. Nobody wants that," said Matt Cuson, senior director of cinema product marketing at Dolby, adding that he understands Warners’ deliberative approach. "Some technical issues have come up in testing and not all the devices did things as well as Warners had expected."

More specific items that surfaced during testing were cited by a number of sources: Some configurations could play HFRs but then couldn’t easily switch back to 24fps for projecting other items like trailers. There have also been some issues with how individual technologies worked in combination with other newly developed products. Additionally, theater personnel require training on the new technologies.

Such obstacles are not unusual when new technology is introduced, and there are precedents for adopting a limited release strategy until a new technology is mastered. The earliest digital cinema releases—Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and An Ideal Husband—opened on fewer than five digital cinema screens to paying audiences in the summer of 1999. Chicken Little, the first digital 3D release, opened on 84 screens in November 2005.

Proponents believe HFRs can improve the quality of 3D and create a more lifelike presentation by eliminating or greatly reducing motion artifacts. But there was mixed reaction to a presentation of unfinished Hobbit footage that was screened earlier this year in HFRs at CinemaCon, and critics said that it looked too real and more like video.

This week at Showeast, Sony and other stakeholders said they continue to view HFRs as an opportunity.

The next two Hobbit films—The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There And Back Again—will both have an HFR release. James Cameron has been a vocal champion and plans to make his Avatar sequels with HFRs. Douglas Trumbull has also said he intends to make movies at HFRs.

Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that a number of the studios are planning to make HFR movies, which they expect will be released in 2013 or 2014.

The production community has certainly taken an interest. Disney, for instance, recently conducted a series of HFR tests with a camera mounted to the California Screaming ride at California Adventure. Additional work is being done at Disney Research in Zurich.

Most digital cinematography cameras and a growing number of technologies for the postproduction community already support HFRs. Paul Chapman, senior vp of technology at Burbank-based postproduction facility Fotokem, acknowledged his company is already working on a HFR project.

Further indication of interest beyond the opening ofHobbit comes from The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, which formed a HFR Study Group (co-chaired by Karagosian, and cinematographers David Stump and Kommer Kleijn) that is working on global HFR cinema standards.