On the Cutting Edge: Dolby’s Curt Behlmer earns Inter-Society honor

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Curt Behlmer, senior VP, content solutions and industry relations, at Dolby Laboratories, will be honored with the Inter-Society’s Ken Mason Award on March 28 at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. The annual award recognizes major contributions to the overall motion picture experience.

Behlmer is a 30-year veteran of the motion picture industry. Before joining Dolby in January 2014, he was chief technology officer of Entertainment Services at Technicolor, where he developed and sponsored technology initiatives across a wide range of production, postproduction and distribution services. Earlier in his career, he held technology and senior executive positions at Warner Bros., Soundelux Entertainment Group, Digital Cinema Ventures, Ryder Sound Services and Lionsgate Films.

The Inter-Society for the Enhancement of Cinema Presentation promotes interactive dialogue and information exchange between cinema-related entities, with the goal of resolving issues affecting the overall cinema presentation. The organization was founded in 1978, by Eastman Kodak VP, Ken Mason.

Membership is comprised of its four charter trade organizations—the International Cinema Technology Association (ICTA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE)—along with over 40 member companies, made up of trade organizations, motion picture studios, exhibition companies, manufacturers, technical consultants and other industry stakeholders.

Belhmer reflects on his career and industry trends in this Q&A with Film Journal International.

How would you characterize the current state of the cinema exhibition industry?

I think it’s a really exciting time. We are seeing a lot of people raising the bar on the overall experience from many different areas of the cinema industry. We went through a period of time where there was not a lot of differentiation. I think there has been a pretty good effort over the last couple of years to improve the cinema-going experience. For example, Dolby’s efforts to improve the imaging capabilities with Dolby Vision, along with other technological advancements such as laser projection, high frame rate and digital 3D, have changed the game for filmmakers looking to deliver a deeper impact on their storytelling. In addition, next-generation audio capabilities like object-based sound, which Dolby has been leading the charge with its Dolby Atmos offering, give audiences a visceral audio experience. When you combine all of those together, I believe people are realizing that it’s a better experience and a better way to see a movie. I think we certainly have more of that ahead of us. It’s good for everyone, including the audience, and we are seeing that filmmakers are embracing the changes, as this is a better way to get people immersed in their storytelling. I’m excited about it.

Look into your crystal ball: How will the theatre-going experience be any different than it is today, five years from now?

If I had a crystal ball, I’m not sure I would be using it for that reason. [laughs] That’s a tough one. I think we’ll see continued advancement in things we’re seeing today, like laser projection and high dynamic range [HDR]. I know there are people experimenting with virtual reality [VR] in a group experience. We’ll see. I’m not sure how that will work. I’m also talking to folks in the industry that are playing with completely changeable black-box environments as opposed to traditional theatres. My guess is that we’ll see continued improvement in the traditional experience. That may be the actual physical image or sound quality, but also some changes to the cinema environment—whether that’s VR, AR [augmented reality] or some other thing we haven’t even touched on yet. You look at some of the things Ang Lee has been doing with high frame rate. Jim Cameron is making some more Avatars, and he’s always an advocate of technology. It will be interesting to see how those things play out over the next few years.

Regarding your current position at Dolby, what are you most focused on in your present role?

It’s actually a pretty cool scope. My team gets to work with studios, filmmakers and creative artists. We focus on creation of content in the Dolby sound and picture formats, Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision. We work with sound mixers, sound designers, cinematographers and colorists. We are excited about how they embrace and use our technology. I have the worldwide Dolby support team—that is, the field engineers that work with our tools. We also have a large in-house team within the walls of Dolby worldwide that really push these formats and helps us seed the market. I am very lucky to work with a lot of talented people, see them get excited about what we’re doing and help support them.

What valuable lessons have you learned along the way? What advice for others would you like to share?

I started at the bottom and worked my way up. If you work hard, maintain your integrity, try to have some fun along the way, and do it without a lot of drama,  you will be set up for success. It’s been fun to be on multiple sides of the industry. I’ve always been very honest with my customers and certainly taken care of them in terms of how I would like to be treated myself—on both a business and a personal level. I’ve experienced this industry from the studio side, service provider side and technology company side—with Dolby now. It’s been great working with many of the same people along the way.

Are there any specific mentors you would like to single out and thank for their contributions on your behalf?

Yes. Leo Chaloukian, who ran a very successful postproduction company called Ryder Sound. He really gave me my start and I owe him a lot for having the confidence in me as a very young engineer. Don Rogers ran the sound department at Warner Bros. and was a big part of my early career. I’m lucky enough to still call them both friends. Also, I am appreciative of my time with John Bonner, who worked with me in an engineering capacity when he was chief engineer at Warner Hollywood.

What work-related accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’ve always been lucky to be involved with major shifts in the industry. In the early days, it was digital audio and postproduction. It was fun to be a part of the beginning of that. I was one of the early pioneers in digital cinema, building the business for Technicolor. The switch in imaging to HDR was an early driver for me joining my current organization, when I saw an early demo of Dolby Vision about five years ago. I thought this was going to change the way we see pictures, and it truly has had an impact on the industry.

What are you most proud of that is non-work-related?

I’ve been very active for decades at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Some of the mentoring and working on technical and scientific achievements—I’ve been part of those committees for years. I’m also proud of representing the Sound branch as a Governor. I think it’s a fundamental component of our business to recognize creative talent.

What are your hobbies away from the office?

My favorite is playing around with vintage auto racing. I’ve got a 1966 Shelby GT350 racecar in Wimbledon White with blue stripes. It’s over 600 horsepower and fully race-prepared. I also like to get away for skiing too.

What are your favorite movies?

It’s tough for me politically with so many friends in the business. There’s so much good work out there and with the recent Oscars it’s refreshing to see a lot of these great pictures adopting Dolby’s technologies – it’s a testament to the work we do. One classic that still sticks in my mind is Silverado. It had an early surround-sound mix and use of Foley in the opening scenes, which was really effective. My wife, Anna Behlmer, has been nominated ten times for best sound mixing, so I would also single out her work for The Thin Red Line. She’s currently with Technicolor on the Paramount Studio lot.

Anything else to add?

I’m really proud to be a part of improving motion picture quality. I’ve been honored to be an officer of the Inter-Society for a number of years and am grateful to be in very good company with other past Ken Mason Award recipients. It’s a great group of people I’m proud to call friends and colleagues, and to be recognized. Lastly, I’m also very proud to have received the Bonner Award several years ago from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for service to the industry. But we are just getting started!