By Gordon Meyer
A few weeks ago, I attended Variety’s annual 3D Entertainment Summit in Hollywood. Naturally there was lots of talk about improvements in camera and conversion systems, sneak peaks at Q3 and Q4 movies that will be released in 3D (as an aside, the footage we saw from LIFE OF PI looks amazing), and even a sneak preview of a Hollywood classic that’s in the process of being converted to 3D (TOP GUN –the opening dogfight segment they showed us blew me away). There were also demonstrations of the latest generation of glasses-free home displays, including a new technology from Dolby that looks very promising, though still not quite ready for prime time.
But there was also a consistent theme through many of the panels that was echoed just last week at Variety’s Film Marketing Summit – that of the theatrical audience experience and the importance of giving those ticket buyers an experience so immersive that they cannot replicate it at home. Even though packaged media sales have slid in the last few years, home entertainment continues to be a critical revenue stream for the studios. But that revenue stream is also heavily influenced by the exposure a film gets from its theatrical release.
It’s no surprise that, generally speaking, the better a film does theatrically, the better it will do in the home market. Of course the lion’s share of how well a film does theatrically is determined by how good a movie it is. (Duh!) But a big part of it, especially when it comes to 3D releases and what percentage of the box office comes from 3D versus 2D screens is heavily influenced by the in-theatre experience. And it’s that very in-theatre experience that was discussed in detail during both events.
Good clean sound, creatively mixed and presented is, of course an important part of the equation. Look at how George Lucas’ use of the then new Dolby Stereo system put that technology on the map back in the late 70s and early 80s. But multichannel sound has become a mature technology and most theatres have it more or less right. The 3D experience is another story.
The history of motion pictures confirms that the public loves the IDEA of 3D. Ever since movies and 3D were first married in the 1920s, every time a new 3D cycle was launched the public response was always strongly positive. But up until the current age of digital technology, the actual theatrical experience always left a lot to be desired, especially when it came to the eye strain that came from images that were so often slightly off in terms of registration. Digital technology has, indeed, solved a lot of those issues, which is why this wave of 3D releases has been going on for close to a decade, especially in the international market. But there are still presentation issues, especially when it comes to screen brightness.
During one of the 3D Summit panels, participants lamented the often sloppy presentation that exhibitors offer their patrons when it comes to 3D movies. The image brightness in a 3D movie is going to be darker because of the glasses needed in theatres and it doesn’t matter whether it’s RealD, Dolby or active shutter. So in theory, exhibitors need to compensate for that light loss by boosting screen brightness. Industry experts like Lenny Lipton have stated that you need a screen brightness level of at least four foot lamberts just to achieve an acceptable brightness level and that six foot lamberts or brighter is considered optimal.
In fact, last summer, Paramount and director Michael Bay made it a point to encourage exhibitors to run TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON at six foot lamberts or brighter, even going to the extent of creating special digital prints optimized for that brightness level. Frequent surveys consistently state that the satisfaction rate for audiences is not only consistently and markedly higher when the screen brightness for a 3D presentation is at six foot lamberts or brighter, the audiences are much more likely to encourage their friends to see those 3D movies at venues with the brighter images.
Many of the panelists raved about the demonstration of a new laser based projector lamp technology at this year’s IBC show in Amsterdam and how eye popping the picture quality of Martin Scorsese’s movie HUGO was when shown in 3D at a whopping 15 foot lamberts. In contrast, it seems that most theatres these days still run 3D at between 2.5 and 3.5 foot lamberts, resulting in dingy, grey images on the screen, not to mention increased eye strain from the darker image and less than happy ticket buyers who just paid a premium for their 3D experience, but instead endured a substandard presentation.
This is one of the reasons that ticket buyers have become increasingly selective about which movies they are willing to shell out extra bucks for in order to see them in 3D. The novelty of 3D has worn off – which is a good thing. Now when audiences choose to see movies in 3D versus 2D, it’s because they know the 3D will noticeably enhance the movie going experience.
But the theatres have to play ball and give provide that premium experience, which means constantly monitoring screen brightness and replacing those expensive xenon lamps more frequently than they may be used to. It’s not just 3D movies where proper screen brightness makes a difference.
Last month, National CineMedia’s Fathom Events series Sony’s newly restored LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as a one day only special event. I know some of the folks at Sony who were responsible for this 4K restoration. They spent a lot of money painstakingly scanning and cleaning up the picture from Columbia’s 65mm original negatives in order to create a truly stunning image on the big screen and are justly proud of their accomplishment.
But when I attended the Fathom screening at AMC’s Woodland Hills theatre, the image was so dim that objects that were clearly intended to be seen as white were as grey as dirty dishwater. Much of the detail that Sony’s restoration team labored over to restore couldn’t be seen because of the dark screen image. Several of my fellow LAWRENCE fans in the audience, who had seen the 1989 restoration in 70mm commented to me about how dark the image was as well. And we had all paid a premium over the AMC’s normal ticket pricing to see this one day only event.
Theatres absolutely have to watch the bottom line in order to make a profit and stay in business. But when they’re competing against movie watching on flat screen displays at home, on computer monitors, tablets and even smartphones, they also need to provide audiences with the kind of immersive experience that they simply can’t get any other way. That means investing what they need to so that both picture and sound are not just adequate, but so good they knock your socks off.