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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CJ@SMPTE Conference – What We Want To Do With More

SMPTE Symposium 2014 - What We Want To Do With More

(from left) Steven J. Scott, Ben Grossmann, Joe Kosinski, Carolyn Giardina and Steven Poster at the 2014 SMPTE Symposium in Hollywood, CA

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 daylong SMPTE 2014 Symposium is being held at the historic El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA on the first day of the organization’s Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition. The symposium is being hosted by the Hollywood Post Alliance as one of the first joint events SMPTE and HPA are putting together as they work toward consolidating their organizations by May of 2015.

The symposium begins with comments from Leon Silverman, President of the HPA and General Manager of the Digital Studio at Walt Disney Studios, along with Jerry Pierce, Vice-President of the HPA and Technical Advisor at the National Association of Theatre Owners.

This year’s symposium is meant to address workflow demands involved with emerging technologies offering higher resolution images with greater contrast, color and brightness, high frame rate production, immersive audio… generally more of everything.

During the first session, titled “So Tell Me More” Mark Schubin, whose not only the Program Chair at the HPA but has a list of credits too long to list here, does a yeoman’s job of educating attendees on the intricate details, studies of image resolution, high density range, high frame rate, screen brightness and immersive sound. Schubin’s presentation is so heavy on acronyms there are enough letters to make a complete alphabet soup in numerous languages. Way too much information to document in a blog post. At the presentation’s conclusion Pierce rightly says it was like “drinking through a fire hose”.

Suffice to say, big take away is that HDR provides the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to audience perception, but that there is no stopping 4K for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that marketers have gotten their hands on it and the technology is ready right now. HDR, laser light sources (screen brightness), immersive audio and HFR are still being worked on. Exacerbating the problems with imaging is that each of the enhancements interacts with one another… and not in a good way.

That brings us to the first panel discussion of the day, “What We Want To Do With More”. Journalist Carolyn Giardina moderates a panel that includes Ben Grossman, a visual effects supervisor who won an Oscar for his work on “Hugo”, Joe Kosinski, the director of “Oblivion” and “Tron:Legacy”, Steven Poster, a cinematographer who counts “Donnie Darko” and “Amityville: The Awakening” among his credits. and Steven J. Scott, a senior digital colorist at Technicolor whose numerous credits include “Gravity” and the “Iron Man” franchise.

Giardina conducts a quick survey of the room that reveals a good number of attendees work in post-production, only a handful working production and that an overwhelm majority are engineers (the latter to nobody’s surprise).

Giardina asks Kosinski if HDR is important to him. “Well I’m real excited by it, more than any other recent development, even more than 3D,” says the filmmaker. “That’s because anytime you can show your work that mimics the world we live in with the color and brightness of everyday life, I think that’s a good thing. Frame rate I have slightly different feelings on.”

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Good Dose of Reality Is the Perfect Antidote For All the Netflix Fear Mongering

Crouching Tiger Sequel on Netflix and IMAX

It’s been a week since streaming media giant Netflix announced two big agreements which signal the company is aggressively moving into a space once occupied exclusively by motion picture distributors and exhibitors. One calls for a sequel to the martial arts classic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to be released next August day-and-date on Netflix and in select IMAX theatres. The other sees Netflix enter into a deal with actor Adam Sandler to finance and distribute four feature films.

In their pieces on the announcements journalists used phrases such as “landmark”, “game changer” and “paradigm shift” so often the words lost all meaning. A week later, it turns out the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, North American movie theatres were just as crowded as ever over the weekend and cinema goers still gobbled up popcorn while watching the latest releases.

This is not to say Netflix’s moves weren’t noteworthy or significant, but rather that the pots of ink (both virtual and otherwise) spilled covering the news were, more often than not, used to write overblown treatises filled with hyperbolic predictions of the industry’s demise crafted primarily to play on the fears of those who depended on it for their livelihoods. Now that everyone’s initial excitement has died down we hope to bring some sanity back into the conversation by examining a few often overlooked concepts.

Crouching Content, Hidden Sequel
Before last week, how many of you actually knew that a sequel was being made to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? After last week’s Netflix news, you can more than triple the number of people who know about the movie, and that’s being extremely conservative. Mainstream media had hitherto paid little notice of the sequel being made to a fourteen-year-old Chinese-language film.

Sure, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a blockbuster when it was released in 2000; the first foreign language film in the United States to earn more than USD $100 million and for years was the country’s highest grossing foreign language movie of all-time. The movie was also nominated for ten Oscars, the most Academy Award nominations ever received for a foreign language film, a record the film still holds. “Crouching Tiger” went on to win four trophies including Best Foreign Language Film and it served to jump-start the career of director Ang Lee, who was already a well respected helmer.

When it comes to the sequel none of that matters however, in part because so many of the elements which made the original “Crouching Tiger” film a success are missing. Stars Yun-Fat Chow and Ziyi Zhang are missing, leaving Michelle Yeoh as one of the few returning cast members. The screenwriters, including James Schamus, are absent as well. Perhaps most importantly, Ang Lee will not be directing.

Instead, Woo-ping Yuen has been tapped to direct the sequel being penned by John Fusco. Arguably an incredibly influential figure of the Hong Kong action genre, Yuen has only made one film in the past 20 years; “True Legend” in 2010 which cost RMB ¥122.6 million (USD $20 million) to make and only made RMB ¥46.5 million (USD $6.82 million). He has been working predominantly as a fight choreographer for movie such as “Kill Bill: Vol. 2″.

To be sure Yuen may be a fine and capable director, though currently is a bit of an open question due to his limited creative output in recent years. So too then is the quality of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend” itself. When Netflix first announced they would finance and open the film it raised speculation that the sequel may not actually be any good. Realizing this, the movie’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, may have been trying to lay off some of their risk on the production, if not entirely recoup their expenditure, by selling Netflix the rights to distribute it.

Brooks Barnes of the New York Times echoed these sentiments as a guest on Showbiz Sandbox this week stating that The Weinstein Company “…got a huge big publicity pop for this sequel and that has to be viewed in that context. Yes it’s sequel to one of the best performing foreign films ever, but if you look closer at that film there are some questions about it…. you just kind of have to wonder what kind of sequel is this? Is this a route that gets them a big headline for something that may ultimately been a direct to home video title all along.”

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Early Release Of “Interstellar” On Film Is A Nostalgic Marketing Coup

Interstellar Film Ad

A heated industry debate was sparked last week by the announcement that Paramount and Warner Bros. would release director Christopher Nolan’s next movie, “Interstellar”, on film. Many of you may recall film as the sprocketed acetate material used by the motion picture industry to shoot, distribute and exhibit movies for more than a century before Hollywood studios “forced” cinema owners to install digital projectors. Adding insult to what some theatre operators see as injury, “Interstellar” will open two days early in theatres showing it on 35mm, the rarefied 70mm and IMAX.

I can understand the frustration certain exhibitors must feel at such news. Having shelled out millions to upgrade their facilities, they wind up watching those using analog technology get rewarded with exclusive access to a highly anticipated title (even if only for two days).

Maybe because of my age and generational ties, or maybe because I was trained at an educational institution commonly referred to as a “film school”, I am rather excited “Interstellar” will be shown on good old fashioned celluloid. I believe, with certain caveats, the decision can help boost the movie’s box office across all sites in which it is booked, no matter the method of projection.

Let me explain.

I used to own a phonograph. I don’t anymore, though kind of wish I did. My last turntable was part of a component stereo system which I purchased upon graduating high school. It was 1989, a time when record stores still stocked vinyl alongside shiny compact discs. Heck, it was even a time when record stores still existed. Ultimately, those reflective CDs took over more retail space and pushed vinyl records into a small corner of most stores. Some merchants just stopped carrying vinyl altogether.

I lugged that turntable around for the next 16 years from dorm room to dorm room and between every shack, apartment, and home I ever leased or owned. Even though I stopped unpacking my crate of vinyl records after moving into a new home, I’d still make certain to set up the phonograph… just in case someone stopped by with a first pressing of Led Zeppelin’s last album. At some point shortly after Napster had decimated the music industry through digital file sharing, I realized the absurdity of continuing to make room for the record player in my stereo cabinet. It was relegated to the garage… stored next to the crate of records it was meant to be playing.

The phonograph sat there gathering dust for a few years as any sentimental or psychological attachment I had to it withered. I finally gave it away to some friend of a friend. I can’t even remember who exactly. Of course, I would never give up my crate of records. There are some real gems in there dating all the way back to my days in primary school, including an autographed copy of “Bob McGrath Sings For All The Boys and Girls“.

At this point you might be wondering what my record player has to do with “Interstellar” being released on film. Technically, it doesn’t. Emotionally however, there are direct ties. To me, a phonograph and vinyl records evoke a certain nostalgia of a “simpler” time when musicians performed on real instruments, when recorded music sounded better than the compressed bytes we now listen to and when music was considered more important than it is today. Of course, the reality is that musicians were often playing instruments that required electricity, the audio quality of compact discs was far more consistent over time and music is just as important today as it was when vinyl records were en vogue. Still, the vinyl medium and technology are tied in my mind to memories that are generally positive.

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