Cinedigm Scores Big With Live 3D Broadcast of NBA All-Star Event

By J. Sperling Reich | February 16, 2009 11:47 am PST

On Satruday evening Cinedigm continued its ongoing effort to bring popular sporting events in 3D to North American movie theatres by broadcasting the NBA All-Star Saturday Night to more than 80 venues in the U.S. and Canada.  Since this type of alternative content is all the rage these days I decided it was high time to check out what all the buzz was about.  I’m quite happy I did.

Previous Cinedigm live 3D events were allegedly riddled with technical problems.  At the Fedex BCS National Championship Game in January the transmission often flipped the left eye and right eye causing theatre patrons to instinctively rip their 3D glasses off so as not to become nauseas.  There were tons of walkouts at theatres that chose to show the event.

I would have assumed that Valentine’s Day would have provided stiff competition for Cinedigm in attracting patrons to the event, but at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood, almost every one of the 290 seats were occupied.  Tickets for the event were a steep $20, though that didn’t seem to deter diehard NBA fans.  In fact, it wasn’t hard to spot fans milling about in the parking lot of the Hollywood+Highland complex on their way into the theatre; they were the ones wearing their favorite team’s jerseys.

Fan Expectations

Though I’m not all that knowledgable about the NBA All-Star game, I was lucky enough to find a seat smack dab in the center of the theatre next to Bradley Bandara, a 24-year-old Portland Trailblazers fan.  Bandara learned about the 3D livecast on and decided to drive the 40 miles from his home to attend.  (Others I spoke with drove between 5 miles and 30 miles to get to the theatre).  Bandara is such a huge fan of pro-basketball that he used to hold viewing parties of the All-Star Saturday Night festivities when he was in high school.

“I’ve been watching this religiously ever since I was a little boy and I figured it was the most condensed celebrated way to view this other than being in the arena,” Bandara said of why he wanted to see the event in 3D.  While not an actual game, All-Star Saturday Night is a showcase of some of the NBA’s most well-known star athletes as they participate in shooting competitions, skills exercises and a climactic slam dunk contest.  Bandara warned that, “This event has a lot of downtime in it and the moments of intensity are few and far between.  I hope it’s just a fun atmosphere with everyone cheering and having a good time.”

Given that we were watching the event in Hollywood, the heart of the movie business, Bandara noted that there were a few industry members on hand.  I personally spotted representatives from Dolby and MasterImage as well as Jim Whittlesey, Senior Vice President of Operations and Technology at Deluxe.  Bill Hogan, a product engineering manager from Panasonic sat right behind me.  He was hoping that the NBA event would be better than the BCS game he “suffered” through at the Rave Town Square 18 in Las Vegas during CES.  He reported having to wear his 3D glasses upside down for the entire first half of the game due to the polarity issues.

Brad Carroll, Vice President of Sales and Business Development for Cinedigm’s content and entertainment group addressed the crowd before tip off, thanking them for coming out.  He mentioned that the NBA livecast was the culmination of 8 years of work for Cinedigm and Bud Mayo, the company’s CEO who is striving to make theatres “more than just a place to see movies.”  He credited Cinedgim’s CineLive technology, which enables live 3D broadcasts, for making the whole night possible.

The opening Britney Spears music video montage of NBA highlights had those around me checking their glasses wondering if they were actually seeing a stereoscopic image.  Turns out they weren’t as a title card followed instructing everyone to “Put your 3D glasses on now”.  As the first 3D images appeared a voiceover blasted through the theatre proclaiming, “Welcome to the dawn of a new day in sports entertainment”.  A quick cut montage of 3D basketball footage followed and the audience was hooked from the moment a shot of the cheerleaders flashed on screen.  We were quickly introduced to Matt Devlin, the television play-by-play announcer for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors who would serve as the host throughout the broadcast.  This caused some grumbling that the commentary from TNT, the cable network which broadcast the event, would not be heard.   Bandara agreed that this was a huge disappointment, saying “I would absolutely be at home if I knew it wasn’t the real commentators.”

The problem with providing the “official” commentators for such 3D livecasts is that the television broadcast and the 3D broadcast are two totally separate productions; each with their own camera crews, audio feeds and shot selection.  Using the TNT audio commentary would no doubt have caused heaps of confusion when sportscasters began referring to images audiences weren’t actually seeing in the theatre.  The only audio that Cinedigm shared with TNT was interviews with the winners of each contest.

Technical High Points and Glitches

Audio was the one area which didn’t seem to live up to the 3D visuals.  It seemed to be in 5.1 “semi-surround sound” with audio coming mostly  from the front speakers.  The cheering sold out crowd on hand at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix could hardly be heard at all and Devlin was often drowned out by the arena’s public address announcer.  The most annoying hiccup was a minor sync problem in which the audio was half a second behind the picture for the entire broadcast.  It was noticeable when basketballs bounced off the backboard and painfully obvious during musical segues such s as one that featured the drumming group Phoenix Percussion.  In all fairness, I didn’t hear anyone complain about the sync issue and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were only industry techies that picked up on it.

Of course, the real captivating factor for those watching in theatres was the 3D footage streaming onto the screen.  The image was shown in high-def 720p with each frame flashing 60 frames per second/per eye for a total of 120 frames per second.  RealD was the 3D technology used at the Chinese 6 in Hollywood, though they were never mentioned by name throughout the simulcast.

One drawback to live 3D events, at least as they are conducted today, is the lack of ghostbusting performed on the images.  Crosstalk, where a single element in the 3D image starts to split into two, was predominant around basketballs in flight, lettering on certain team’s jerseys and at times the basketball net.  You’d need a trained eye to notice it consistently and nobody I spoke with complained of dizziness, eye fatigue or headaches.  As soon as RealD (and other 3D technology providers) can perform ghostbusting on the fly, which is presently in the works, this issue should be resolved.

Overall the image presentation was very impressive.  Certain moments were downright amazing, especially during the slam dunk contest.  There were only two incredibly brief instances where the satellite feed dropped out causing pixelated blocks which turned the screen into the worlds largest impression of a Jackson Pollock painting.  The first instance of signal loss lasted 15 seconds and the second a mere 5 seconds.  The latter occurred right before the slam dunk contest and jump started the audience into impromptu synchronized vocal exercises – moaning in unison at the loss of picture and cheering loudly upon its return.

The only other image snafu was caused by the basketball players themselves who often moved faster than 60 fps causing motion blur during slow motion replays.  (Maybe Cinedigm can convince the NBA to talk their players into moving a bit slower during 3D livecasts).  I’d bet a pretty penny that in the next few months this footage will be cleaned up and all the motion blur and crosstalk will be gone so that at trade shows such as ShoWest it will look pristine.

While most of these technical issues weren’t noticed by sports fans in the Chinese 6, almost everyone was commenting on the poor camera angles capturing the really exciting moments.  TNT was given the premium camera positions for each competition often leaving Pace, the 3D production company that shot the event, struggling to find good placement.  This is completely understandable since TNT was expecting 5 million television viewers and Cinedigm was expecting. . . well. . . not 5 million theatre goers.  As well, TNT’s crew has spent most of their career shooting sporting events and are experts at framing a shot and predicting the action.  By the end of the three hour NBA All-Star Saturday Night event, the 3D coverage was featuring shots that were poorly framed and often featured camera operators and their equipment rather  than basketball players.  When was the last time you saw a camera crew featured prominently on television during an important free throw?  This issue will surely wind up as a footnote, for there were moments of pure brilliance when the 3D footage and the on-screen action were married perfectly to create a breathtaking shot that will be remembered long after shots that derive from poor camera placement are forgotten.

Audience Participation

If the goal was to make theatre audiences feel as if they were “at the game” then Cinedigm succeeded.  When the arena PA announcer asked everyone to stand for the national anthem, one person in the theatre actually complied.  He looked around, saw that nobody else was standing, suffered a moment of embarrassment, and stayed on his feet.  Throughout the night the audience remained boisterous; booing players they didn’t like, cheering for ones they did, counting players’ baskets and shouting out their own scoring during the slam dunk contest.  It was. . . dare I say it, almost as if we were at the arena in Phoenix.

When the Portland Trailbalzers’ Rudy Fernández was having trouble making his second slam dunk, missing one attempt after another, the whole audience was glued to the screen.  They rooted him on with each new run to the basket as if he could actually hear them.  The attention paid to such a large screen during such a moment was far greater than what one would normally expect from watching similar content at a bar.

We Now Pause For This Commercial Message

A 2D trailer for “Madea Goes To Jail” was the only thing resembling a commercial throughout Cinedigm’s simulcast.  There were a few short 30 second “house ads” for Sensio 3D, the NBA and Cinedigm itself, otherwise the telecast was commercial free.  Instead, theatre goers were treated to close up shots of the cheerleaders dance routines.  And I can gladly report that the cheerleaders do look. . . ahem, even better in 3D.

About an hour in, Bud Mayo showed up on screen to say hello to everyone in the 150 movie theatres around North America watching the event.  (There seemed to be a bit of confusion in venue count since Carroll mentioned that it was being shown at 87 theatres and Devlin gave out an 85 theatre count.)  Mayo was standing courtside wearing a pair of RealD glasses and stairing at a television monitor displaying the game in 3D.  Ever the salesman, he launched into a marketing pitch for Cinedigm and digital cinema explaining that events such as this can help fill theatres that are empty or not being used 85% of the time.  “The winners tonight are the audience,” he exclaimed, leaving those non-industry types in my theatre perplexed as to what this man was actually talking about and how it related to basketball.

Speaking of marketing, just before the evening ended a message flashed on screen asking the audience to send any comments they had about the simulcast and the 3D presentation to Cinedigm via text message.  This was not only good customer relations but a genius marketing move as Cinedigm can now market future events to these same patrons.

Random Odds and Ends

Showing a live 3D event, be it sporting or otherwise, is a concept and a technology which is still in the early stages of development, though evolving rather quickly.  Sitting in the Chinese 6 on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but notice a few things worth mentioning:

  • The theatre audience was so wrapped up in watching the game and glued to the 3D images, it seemed as if nobody visited the concession stand.  In the middle of the event the fully stocked VIP bar was completely empty.  Yet when the lights came up at the end the place was littered with popcorn bags and empty soda cups.
  • People were chattering and talking to their friends whenever they felt like it.  Nobody cared or shushed them. . . and it didn’t detract from the experience!
  • Audience members talked on their cell phones to friends watching from home.  Then, when it was time to vote via text message for the winner of the slam dunk competition, everyone whipped out their cell phones and there wasn’t a single complaint.  Try that during a movie (but not if you want to live).
  • CGI and lower thirds take on a whole new meaning when they appear in 3D.  They are actually pleasant to look at.
  • With no automation cues to program, the lights didn’t dim until 15 minutes into the broadcast which was a a bit of a problem given the low light levels 3D affords.  Several people yelled out for the lights to be turned off.
  • In 3D, when the beer man walks up the aisle, he’s not just obstructing the view of those in the arena anymore.  Down in front!
  • The size difference between NBA athletes and their WNBA counterparts is quite noticeable in 3D.
  • 3D does not make NBA athletes sound any more intelligible than they do when speaking during television interviews.
  • Mascots look even worse in 3D than they do when they are annoying you by jumping up and down during the games.

Show Me The Money

Of course, at the end of the day Cinedigm, rights holders and theatre owners are all trying to make money off of these events.  The financial outcome of Cinedigm’s NBA All-Star Saturday Night won’t be known for some time, but in an upcoming post I’ll review some best and worst case scenarios.

One would think that simulcasting the actual All-Star game in 3D would have been a better financial bet for Cinedigm, but the NBA only offered up the Saturday night festivities.  Even so, TNT reports that the All-Star Saturday Night telecasts have traditionally drawn more viewers.  According to the NBA, Saturday night’s telecast was the most watched in the 23-year history of the event, with more than 5.8 million people tuning in.

The Mann Chinese 6 seemed happy with the event.  The cashier at the box office reported 205 tickets were sold, not counting comps, which was a 77% occupancy rate.  (It was closer to 95% if you include all the comps.)  The manager of the theatre reported that concession sales were definitely up, and he said there were more people in his venue than on a regular Saturday night.

Mann doesn’t seem to be the only exhibitor pleased with the event, as a positive review from The News Herald in Northern Ohio confirmed.  By the end of the evening Carroll was responding to emails on his Blackberry coming in from happy exhibitors across North America.  One Canadian exhibitor wanted to speak early Monday morning about “adding more locations” for the next event.

Better yet, the auditorium was full at the end of the evening and the 2o people I polled while exiting the auditorium said they enjoyed the event, didn’t mind the USD $20 ticket price, felt the 3D aspect truly worked and would “definitely” attend a future simulcast if one were held.

Could Cinedigm have asked for a better response?

J. Sperling Reich