Next-Gen Moviegoing: NAB and SMPTE ponder 'The Future of Cinema'

Features
Technology

Every year, on the weekend before the giant NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show and Convention kicks into high gear at the Las Vegas Convention Center and 100K+ attendees converge on Sin City, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) presents a special two-day event entitled “The Future of Cinema.”

NAB’s 2017 theme celebrated “The M.E.T. Effect”—the convergence of media, entertainment and technology, and this seems to parallel the way the cinema/exhibition industry is also heading. Content creators, producers, distributors and other contributors to the movie supply chain are all striving to drive people to leave the comfort of their homes and the convenience of their handheld mobile screens and motivate them to purchase a ticket for a shared social experience at their local theatre.

As research tools continue to improve and more big data on general consumer habits and individual preferences becomes available, there is an increasingly large battalion of analysts focused on crunching this information and utilizing it to help cinema owners drive improved attendance levels and ultimately raise per-cap concessions numbers, which are typically at much higher gross margin levels than box-office revenue.

At “The Future of Cinema,” a number of relevant themes were explored via individual presentations and moderated panel discussions, including how the unintended consequences of technological progress are impacting next-gen cinema; projection display and immersive audio quality and advancements, and how virtual reality (VR) innovations will impact content creation and the moviegoing experience.

As industry followers know, the vast majority of worldwide theatres have already successfully completed their respective transitions onto a digital projection platform over the past decade. In exploring the collateral impact of the global upgrade and conversion from celluloid film reels, some interesting observations came to light from members of a diverse panel, which included Hollywood studio technologists from 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Disney, equipment and service manufacturers Dolby, Barco and Deluxe Technicolor, and representatives from the fifth- and sixth-largest exhibitors, Marcus Theatres and Harkins Theatres.

One intriguing point raised by participants was that despite initial projections by many that digital systems would be much easier to maintain and ultimately more cost-effective than their 35mm predecessors, this has not necessarily been the case and in fact the opposite appears to be true for many theatre owners.

Some digital projectors contain as many as two-dozen internal fans to keep the system cool, and these often fail. Another concern is that the sheer number of different versions of a given digital title (produced in different languages and movie formats such as 2D or 3D, for instance) has created a critical need for automated, enhanced record-keeping by studios and distributors, as well as better library-management software to control what appears on the screen in the auditorium.

Many theatre operators are also about to be faced with a difficult dilemma—when and if they should consider upgrading their initial generation of digital projectors to newer, more sophisticated systems as the warranties of the first-gen systems begin to expire. Many early-stage projectors were only equipped for 2K and are not able to handle HDR and high-frame-rate prints, for example.

Additionally, laser projection continues to gain traction as it becomes increasingly affordable. It looks like exhibitors will have to huddle with their accounting teams and external advisors to closely examine ROI figures and financial projections in determining what equipment upgrades, if any, make sense.

Panel member Mark Collins, Marcus Theatres’ director of projection technology, pointed out, “We need to specifically look at ROI when evaluating new technologies and ask ourselves whether we can possibly charge consumers more for it. One of the recent ‘Wows’ that our patrons seem to love is reclining seats. Because we’re from Wisconsin, those luxurious chairs are often heated too.”

In a discussion on visual projection standards in theatres, we learned that although 14-foot lamberts is the minimally acceptable brightness level across the industry, many auditoriums fall short of this benchmark, and the cinemagoing customer ultimately suffers.

Monitoring theatres and the quality of projection remotely via NOCs (network operation centers) can help address this concern. Dolby Cinema, for example, produces 30-foot lamberts and its HDR achieves a one million-to-one ratio, compared to standard digital HDR of just 2000:1.

Regarding lighting on the moviemaking side, a panel session covered the burgeoning area of light-field technology. Stargate Studios and its senior executive Al Lopez discussed his company’s ability to bring an extensive library of virtual backlots to the film production world.

Although green screens continue to be used extensively in production, some believe the use of light-field technology will eventually render green screens a thing of the past. One panelist opined that 3D projection is merely a gimmick, but light-field technology will be a much longer-term industry trend and eventually become a standard.

Los Angeles-based OTOY is bringing real-time cinema-quality 3D and holographics to filmmakers. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Spider-Man 3 are two examples of movies that have utilized the company’s facial and motion-capture devices.

The event’s keynote was delivered by Rob Legato, three-time Oscar winner for VFX excellence based on his work on Titanic, Hugo and Disney’s 2016 live-action release The Jungle Book. Legato proved to be both an engaging and a self-effacing speaker, as the in-room playback technology for his presentation was far from 100% spot-on.

He provided some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of The Jungle Book. Many audience members that saw the finished film in cinemas around the world would likely be surprised to learn that it was filmed entirely on soundstages in downtown Los Angeles.

The VFX look and feel of the movie, thanks to the award-winning creative team, leads one to believe that the production was shot in an actual jungle. Legato made a valid point that the use of green screens in a studio environment ultimately kept everyone safer during the filming process, including talented young first-time actor Neel Sethi, who portrayed Mowgli on the big screen.

The immersive-audio panel discussion offered some interesting takeaways. The industry does not do an effective enough job of marketing this underappreciated feature of the cinemagoing experience to the public. Sound is largely experiential and this may be the biggest challenge…the difficulty explaining to others how good the sound mix is, or isn’t.

A superior mix helps an audience attendee truly feel like they are a participant in the onscreen action. Deploying overhead speakers in a theatre can be a real difference-maker in the quality of immersive audio. As one panelist opined, perhaps the best way to judge the quality of the sound is to remove it from the mix for the sake of comparison. This is not feasible in practice, of course, unless there are side-by-side auditoriums for demoing.

Sound is also an important element for a good VR and/or AR experience. The challenge in a movie theatre environment is to make it a shared social experience, which is difficult when people are wearing individual headsets and are not directly interacting with others in the auditorium.

But, with IMAX recently testing VR at one of their flagship L.A. theatre locations and the wide array of large and small companies demonstrating various VR experiences, cutting-edge cameras and production tools on the NAB exhibition show floor, it will be very interesting to attend next year’s “Future of Cinema” event to see what kind of progress is made on the VR front over the coming twelve-month period.