Answering A Few Hypothetical Questions About the “Interstellar” Unlimited Ticket

Interstellar Unlimited Ticket Meme

Two weeks ago AMC Theatres and Paramount Pictures announced they’d be teaming up to provide members of the cinema chain’s loyalty program, AMC Stubs, an opportunity to see “Interstellar” as many times as they’d like.

The Interstellar Unlimited Ticket, as the offering has been dubbed, costs between USD $19.99 and USD $34.99 depending on location. Stubs members who have already seen the movie can purchase an upgrade for USD $14.99. “Interstellar”, the latest film from director Christopher Nolan; a science fiction epic that was released to a great deal of buzz and in numerous formats, including traditional 35mm film, 70mm film, IMAX and digital.

In the press release sent out by Paramount announcing the program, Elizabeth Frank, AMC’s executive vice president and chief content and programming officer, stated:

“Christopher Nolan has created a masterpiece that movie fans are saying gets better every time they see it. The Interstellar Unlimited Ticket gives these fans an opportunity to experience the spectacular cinematography and heart-warming stories as many times as they would like – at any AMC location, any showtime, in any format, including IMAX.”

Not sure who these fans are with enough free time to sit through multiple viewings of a three hour movie, nor if that says anything about the unemployment rate in the United States, however “Interstellar” was one of this year’s most highly anticipated films and got pretty decent reviews. So, putting the question aside of whether there is actual demand to see “Interstellar” an unlimited number of times during its initial run, we contacted AMC hoping to get a few questions answered in an effort to write up a post that went beyond simply regurgitating the press release.

Thus, we are inserting the following obligatory statement:

AMC did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking additional information and comments for this story.

We even went so far as to send the appropriate personnel at AMC some of the questions we had about the the Interstellar Unlimited Ticket, yet heard nothing back. Left with no way to cover the announcement in a manner that doesn’t come off as pure promotion, we came up with the concept of providing answers to the questions we had hoped to ask AMC. We’re not saying our answers are accurate, but simply educated opinions based on our own research and knowledge of the industry. Let us know what you think of them, and feel free to provide some of your own constructive answers in the comments section of this post.

When did the idea for the unlimited ticket program come about? Was it before the film’s release and, if so, how long did it take to put together?

The idea came about before “Interstellar” was released. One way to take a movie from being a strong success to an outright blockbuster is getting fans of the filmmaker or cast to see the movie more than once. Thanks to shortening theatrical release windows and the increased quality of home entertainment systems, the practice of seeing a release more than once in cinemas has decreased to an insignificant number.

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Regal Cinemas Causes A Disturbance In The Force

Regal's Star Wars Force Awakens Teaser Release

A few days ago you may have felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of PR managers suddenly cried out in terror, and a theatre chain was suddenly silenced.

Translation: Regal Cinemas learned the hard (and often harmless) lesson so many online retailers have already experienced on countless occasions.

While updating their customer-facing website over the weekend, Regal broke the news that a teaser trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (a.k.a “Star Wars: Episode VII”) would be shown in a small number of theaters. The circuit’s website even went so far as to list the nine cinemas showing the teaser before all films from November 28th through November 30th. In a commendable attempt to be thorough, Regal also posted links to the announcement on Facebook and Twitter.

The only problem in all this is that the official announcement of the teaser trailer for “The Force Awakens” was meant to come from its director J.J. Abrams who had not yet made the news public. Oops.

The “incident”, if you can actually call it that, occurred early Monday morning setting off a nerd alert in certain sectors of the Internet galaxy. Though Regal quickly took down the webpage and deleted their posts on Facebook and Twitter, they were soon made aware (if they weren’t already) that once something is published online, it is impossible to erase. Screenshots of their webpage and even a YouTube video began making the rounds on social media and the blogosphere.

It wasn’t long before official word came from Abrams, via his production company’s Twitter account, that an 88 second teaser for the highly anticipated release would hit select theatres this Friday. Shortly afterwards Regal republished their webpage announcing details on where and when to see the “Star Wars” teaser.

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YouTube Now Supports High Frame Rate Playback (Sort Of)

YouTube Preview Image

Back in 2010, as debate raged over whether 4K was really necessary in movie theatres (it depends) and if consumers would ever adopt 4K television sets (they’re starting to), YouTube announced they would begin support of 4K video uploading and playback. The debate wasn’t entirely squelched though until Netflix began streaming content in 4K earlier this year.

YouTube may be squashing yet another film industry debate, this one over the benefits of content created and shown in high frame rate (HFR).

To date, the only feature film to be shot and released in HFR is Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. The franchise was both captured and projected at 48 frames per second (fps). There have been only a few filmmakers who have since suggested they wish to shoot HFR at higher speeds, notably James Cameron. This is likely due to the lukewarm reception HFR versions of “The Hobbit” received as well as an uncertainty over the install base of HFR-capable digital projectors.

Though the merits of HFR are still being questioned for theatrical releases thanks to a perceived lack of audience interest, a couple of months ago YouTube announced they would begin support of 48 and 60 fps video. Almost immediately YouTube began testing HFR playback with limited groups, however at the end of October the feature was opened up to all users.

There is a bit of noteworthy fine print on the feature as it is currently offered. For instance, the only way to watch video played back in 60 fps is to view it in HD by selecting the 720p and 11080p from the settings drop down of each video. As well, the only web browser capable of showing 60 fps is Chrome, though support for additional browsers is forthcoming.

Oh, and one last thing… YouTube will be in charge of deciding what videos will be given the 60 fps treatment. For now they want to limit its use to videos that are considered “motion intense”. They may as well have just said, we’re doing this for video game footage. Most PC and console games run at 60 fps and look choppy when played back at the standard 24 fps. Playing back video at a higher frame rate gives viewers the same experience and perspective as the person actually playing the game. I’m sure you’ll agree the sample video shown above looks crisp, clear and with smooth, fluid movement.

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New MPAA and NATO Wearables Policy Is As Much About Social Norms As It Is About Piracy

Sergey Brin Wearing Google Glass

Google’s Sergey Brin shows off Google Glass

In his classic 1835 treatise on American society, Democracy In America, french historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Laws are always unstable unless they are founded on the manners of a nation; and manners are the only durable and resisting power in a people.”

This passage sprang to mind as I read the anti-theft policy update issued jointly on October 29th by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). The new policy focuses on wearable devices like smart watches and Google Glass, the latter being an optical head-mounted display (OHMD) that attaches to prescription or custom eyewear. Many of these devices are equipped with a camera and thus the reason the MPAA and NATO felt obliged to revise the policy. Their statement read as follows:

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have a long history of welcoming technological advances and recognize the strong consumer interest in smart phones and wearable “intelligent” devices. As part of our continued efforts to ensure movies are not recorded in theaters, however, we maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward using any recording device while movies are being shown. As has been our long-standing policy, all phones must be silenced and other recording devices, including wearable devices, must be turned off and put away at show time. Individuals who fail or refuse to put the recording devices away may be asked to leave. If theater managers have indications that illegal recording activity is taking place, they will alert law enforcement authorities when appropriate, who will determine what further action should be taken.

The two organizations already had a standing policy against the use of mobile phones in theatres. It is simply being extended now to encompass wearable devices. You might even say the decision was a “no-brainer” accept for the confusion that might occur in reference to the cinema patron who decides to use “no brain” by wearing such a device into an auditorium in the first place.

Unfortunately people do indeed wear electronic devices into cinemas as was demonstrated in January when a moviegoer in Columbus, Ohio was detained by federal authorities for wearing Google Glass during a showing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”. The incident occurred when alert theatre personnel at the AMC Easton 30 noticed a patron wearing the “recording device” during the screening and contacted the MPAA, who in turn notified the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees movie theft.

Much in the way there were recently fuzzy policies and procedures on how to treat Ebola patients in the United States, there were no guidelines back in January for cinema operators on how to handle patrons with wearable devices such as Google Glass. It took the trade organizations a notably long time to update their anti-theft policy afterwards, however this may have more to do with the MPAA’s working relationship with Google and their desire to maintain it.

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AMC Scores Promotional Hat Trick With “Big Hero 6″ Giveaway

AMC Big Hero 6 Pin GiveawayI awoke on Monday morning to a notification on my iPhone related to “Big Hero 6“. The latest animated release from Walt Disney Pictures had just topped the box office in North America during its debut weekend, fending off Warner Bros. “Interstellar” by taking in over USD $56 million.

The iPhone notification however didn’t have anything to do with the past weekend’s box office. Rather it was sent by the AMC Theatres mobile app I have installed on my iPhone. I have the app set to enable notifications and even allow for it to use my location. That’s why every time I drive past an AMC multiplex my mobile buzzes with a notification. I still haven’t determined if that’s annoying or not.

The notification concerning “Big Hero 6″, pictured here, was alerting me to a special promotion the cinema chain was running that gave away limited edition pins for the movie with the purchase of tickets. The message read, “Which Baymax pin will you get?” with pictures of both the pins featuring the huggable robot at the center of the film. One ploy in the promotion is that only one in ten pins will be of Baymax in his hero armor, presumably making those versions more valuable.

The ultimate catch in all this is that the giveaway is exclusive to members of Stubs, AMC’s loyalty program. I continue to pay for Stubs each year, always swearing it’s the last year I’ll do so. Even though I could personally care less about them, exclusive benefits such as these giveaways make more inclined to not question the annual Stubs membership charge. After all, my kids would probably love the pins… even though each would probably get different versions leading to arguments over who gets which one on the way to our seats.

I only point all of this out to highlight how AMC used the giveaway to score a promotional hat-trick. They promoted the film, “Big Hero 6″ and their loyalty program, Stubs, while at the same time reminding me about their mobile app (which I rarely use).

They may have even convinced me to head on over to the nearest AMC Theatres so I can see the film while supplies last. Maybe I can pay for my Stubs membership by selling the pin on eBay. At the time of this writing they are already fetching over USD $11.40 and counting.

Marvel Plays It Smart After “Avengers” Trailer Leak

YouTube Preview Image

When Marvel Entertainment learned the teaser trailer for their highly anticipated super hero movie “Avengers: Age of Ultron” had leaked online they had a number of options in how to respond and ultimately did so in an exemplary manner. With the resources of Disney, their deep-pocketed owner, Marvel could have sent take down notices to every single website posting the leaked trailer. They could have even gone so far as to file suit against specific sites hosting or disseminating the trailer. Instead, Marvel handled the incident efficiently and in a way that painted them in a positive light.

The trailer in question is the first for the studio’s 2012 blockbuster “The Avengers” and was leaked via Google Drive. Within hours Disney sent Google a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act requesting the file be removed. Initially there was some concern that an entire cut of the movie had been pirated however that seems unlikely since it is still being completed.

When the leak was first noticed on October 22nd, rather than run around with a SWAT team of lawyers trying to squelch the trailer’s distribution, Marvel decided to promote the incident with a single two word tweet that read, “Dammit, Hydra”. The post has been retweeted and favorited over 60,000 times and set the tone for the rest of Marvel’s actions related to the leak. By referencing Hydra, a global terrorist network in the Marvel universe, the company was showing a sense of humor in a relevant fashion. They seized control of the situation from that moment forward.

With the footage in the wild Marvel understood there was no way to stuff the genie back into the bottle, if you will, and one-upped the leakers by quickly releasing an HD version of the trailer along with a poster for the movie. This delighted hardcore fans who quickly kept the chatter about the trailer for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” going strong on social media.

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CJ@SMPTE Conference – Bringing It Home: The Future of More Delivery

SMPTE Conference 2014 - HPA El Capitan Marquee

In an effort to provide updates on the proceedings of the 2014 SMPTE Technical Conference and Exhibition presently taking place in Los Angeles, CA, this post was written live, and in the present tense, during one of the event’s panel discussions. Comments attributed to panel members are paraphrased unless denoted specifically by quotation marks.

A half-hour is spent with Deluxe’s Stephen Ferguson and cinematographer Dave Stump, ASC looking at high resolution and high frame rates images with specially created test materials. The MOS footage was created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science Sci-Tech Council so that there would be royalty free material to test high dynamic range and high frame rate capability, among other features. Look for the new Academy StEM material to be made available soon, with detailed descriptions and appropriate licenses.

Then Jerry Pierce, Vice-President of the HPA and Technical Advisor at the National Association of Theatre Owners, kicks off a panel featuring Mitch Singer, formerly the Chief Digital Strategy Officer at Sony, Shaun Lile of Elemental Technologies and Pete Putnam, the president of ROAM Consulting. The focus is on how to get all the new fangled technology discussed previously in the day into the home, rather than cinemas.

Singer is the first to air his thoughts on the matter and he starts off with an axiom that has become a national anthem in the entertainment industry over the past several years. “Can I access the content I want to access when I want to access it and the device I want to access it on?” he asks rhetorically. “I think in this group [SMPTE] we focus on the quality of the content without focusing on the consumer experience. It’s really challenging as a consumer to pay more money to get higher quality content. I think we sometimes overlook that when we distribute high quality content. In the end it’s just a movie or a television program and you want to be entertained. Unless I can see it and see the difference I’m probably not going to be pay extra money for it.”

Singer gives a real-world example of how during a demo of native 4K on an 84 inch Sony television set versus a scaled HD image, he couldn’t tell the difference, so why spend the extra money? Alas, marketing groups have gotten their hands on the term 4K and won’t let go. “I’m not sure that 4K is going to sell anything,” he says. “However, I did see HDR, and the moment I saw HDR I brought everyone from Sony Pictures to see the demo. That’s the one thing I could actually see across the room. I really hope we get to that as soon as possible. I’m not sure if studios will be able to monetize it but I know that audiences will be able to see the difference with HDR.”

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CJ@SMPTE Conference – Listen Up: Immersive Sound

SMPTE Conference 2014 - Immersive Sound

(from left) Sara Duran-Singer, Gabe Guy, Ben Wilkins, Dennis Baxter and Hanne Stenzel

In an effort to provide updates on the proceedings of the 2014 SMPTE Technical Conference and Exhibition presently taking place in Los Angeles, CA, this post was written live, and in the present tense, during one of the event’s panel discussions. Comments attributed to panel members are paraphrased unless denoted specifically by quotation marks.

After the immersive visuals of Howard Lukk’s high dynamic range footage, the second afternoon session of the SMPTE 2014 Symposium deals with the subject of immersive audio. The panel discussion is moderated by Sara Duran-Singer, a senior post-production and production executive formerly with Walt Disney Studios. The panel itself includes Dennis Baxter, who has engineered and designed the sound for more Olympics telecasts and sporting events than anyone can count, Gabe Guy, a sound mixers from Walt Disney Studios, Hanne Stenzel who is working in the field of 3D audio at the Fraunhofer Institute and Ben Wilkins a sound designer and mixer at Technicolor.

The opening remarks touch on the first immersive audio technology developed by Iosono back in 2004, bringing us into the present day with Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro. Duran-Singer asks the panel the benefits of immersive sound.

“At Disney we’re really into immersing the audience and providing the audience with new experiences” Guy answers. His team is trying to elevate what all the artists have created onscreen with audio of a similar caliber. He is mixing in “native Atmos” by listening and monitoring in an 11.1 setup. His group will then listen to the 7.1 and 5.1 fold-downs “just to hear what it sounds like”.

Most, if not all, of Guy’s experience in immersive audio is with Atmos and he reports the new technology hasn’t made the post-production process more complicated. “We wouldn’t be able to do something like Atoms if it added a lot of time or complexity,” he says. “We managed to make it work in our existing workflow so that it adds as little as one day. We’re able to do all of that complexity and work up front. Our whole goal is to not add additional time and treat it as much like a normal mix as possible.”

As for specific benefits Guy tells the symposium attendees, “It’s taken the handcuffs off. It allows you to be more specific and take dialogue off the screen. The effects are much more precise in panning. The composers said they really enjoyed hearing their scores on Atoms because it can separate out the instruments.”

Guy also appreciates the way individual characters and their dialogue can be separated during action sequences.

Whether to add immersive audio to a production is always a decision that comes down to money, adds Wilkins. “It’s the balance between art and commerce,” he says. “Is Atmos going to increase ticket sales?”

Certainly it can increase costs by a minimum of USD $10,000 and is a choice that is best made before post-production begins on a movie. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a show where they’ve ever gone back and said let’s make it Atmos,” states Wilkins. “It’s an economically and fairly tough decision to do that. It effects everything including how we record sounds.”

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CJ@SMPTE Conference – Howard Lukk Presents HDR Footage From “Emma”

Emma Preview at 2014 SMPTE Symposium

In an effort to provide updates on the proceedings of the 2014 SMPTE Technical Conference and Exhibition presently taking place in Los Angeles, CA, this post was written live, and in the present tense, during one of the event’s panel discussions. Comments attributed to panel members are paraphrased unless denoted specifically by quotation marks.

The afternoon session of SMPTE 2014 Symposium begins with a preview of footage from “Emma”, a short film directed by Howard Lukk, formerly the Vice President of Production Technologies at Walt Disney Studios. “Emma” was shot in high dynamic range by Lukk and cinematographer Daryn Okada.

Four minutes of the 13 minute film is shown. To maintain eligibility for film festivals Lukk can’t show the entire piece. Nor can he show it in true HDR at the symposium since the projector being used isn’t capable of HDR. Still, Lukk says what he is showing should give attendees a good sense of the latitude HDR gives filmmakers.

Emma” was shot in Los Angeles over four days in May and June of 2014. Locations included Griffith Park, the historic Mount Pleasant House and a sound stage. Okada used an Alexa camera with an open gate to facilitate a scope picture shooting ARRIRAW in the ACES color space.

Since the piece is a suspense thriller Lukk and his cinematographer strove to get rich contrast. Lukk cites the work of cinematographer Greg Toland on “Citizen Kane” as an inspiration.

One of the biggest problems on set was monitoring, says Lukk, “We were shooting an HDR movie and using and SDR monitor.” As such Okada had to rely on his light meter to estimate light drop-off in certain shots.

Lukk reports that HDR allowed his team to rely heavily on natural light, but that in closeups the use of (too much) makeup was an issue. “When we went in for the closeups you can see a lot of flaws in peoples faces,” he recalls. “I wanted to see those realistic things.”

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