SMPTE 2012: Exhibitors Explore High Frame Rate Support

Panelists weigh upgrade options at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers convention.

A panel of exhibitors at a Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers symposium on Monday discussed what would be involved in transitioning to high frame rates (HFRs), including options for what they said are 7,500 digital cinema projectors that are already installed in the U.S. and are not upgradable to support 3D and HFRs.

The event kicked off the organization’s annual conference and exhibition in Hollywood.

With growing interest in HFRs - and the Dec. 14 release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which was made at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second - panelists from Regal, Harkins, Marcus Theatres, Cinemark and Carmike Cinemas reported that they are exploring how to best support this option.

The conversation didn’t address the still-mixed views on the aesthetic look of a high frame rate image, rather the impact of a potential transition on theater owners.

It has been roughly a decade since digital cinema kicked off. During the session, a couple of panelists admitted that at this stage their theaters had not yet seen a return on investment from their digital cinema projectors.

The conversation focused on DLP Cinema projectors from Barco, Christie and NEC, which combined make up the majority of installations in the U.S. To get to high frame rates, the "Series Two" versions of these projectors require a software upgrade, plus an accompanying HFR-supported piece of hardware called an integrated media block (IMB).

But panelists reported that there are an estimated 7,500 "Series One" projectors already installed in the U.S. alone. David Pflegl, director of technical services at Carmike Cinemas, explained that these projectors will not be capable of projecting 3D HFR content.

Warner Bros. has already stated that it would only release The Hobbit in 3D at HFRs to select theaters in all major North American cities.

Pflegl noted that exhibitors can, of course, elect to contine to use their Series One projectors at the standard 24 frames per second (fps), or even upgrade to 2D HFR projection.

He added that another option for Series One owners is to go to HFR and 4K projection via an upgrade program being offered by Cinedigm and Christie. This, he said, would involve an amendment to their virtual print fee (VPF) funding agreement though.

Kirk Griffen, director of engineering at Harkins Theaters, offered an overview of the options available for upgrading IMBs from various vendors. He said Christie and Sony IMB hardware requires software upgrades that involve a fee. There is no fee to upgrade the software on the Doremi IMB. Dolby and Qube IMBs, he added, already support HFRs.

Meanwhile, HFR interest is building. James Cameron has already said he intends to make his Avatar sequels at HFRs, and Douglas Trumbull also plans to make a movie at HFRs. No other motion picture titles have been announced as HFR productions, though insiders say discussions are underway.