It Was A Very Good ShoWest 2009 For Sony

By | April 6, 2009 6:01 am PDT

The popcorn has been swept away, the 3D movie banners folded, the quiet talk about how cinema is holding up in the recession has faded – ShoWest 2009 is over.

While VNU will continue to host the Las Vegas-set cinema trade show and exhibition for one more year before NATO is rumoured to take the show back (and move it to Ceasar’ Palace) in 2011, there was something of an End Credits roll feel to the confab. The number of attendees was down, the studios were (with two exceptions) largely absent, the parties scaled back and nowhere was there any open celebration of the fact that this year’s box office easily looks set to cross $10bn.

So who did well in this year’s conference? Digital Cinema? Old hat. 3D? Sure, “Monsters vs. Aliens” did well, but that was to be expected. Instead it would seem that ShoWest 2009 will go down as the year that Sony and its 4K SXRD technology took its decisive step into the limelight. No, it was not a case of audiences waking up and suddenly finding 2K resolution inadequate and demanding 4K, as Sony still hasn’t figured out how to create a pixel-fetish driven demand amongst cinema goers (free hint: don’t call it ‘4K’ – call it an ‘8 megapixel projector’ versus DLP’s ‘2 megapixel’ – sure, it’s not correct, but since when did that stand in the way of aggressive marketing?).

No, it was three interlinked announcement that helped crown Sony Electronics (not SPE – Sony Pictures Entertainment) the unofficial King of the ShoWest hill. The first was the much trailered announcement about the 3D capabilities, thanks to the special adapter developed with RealD. With 3D the only thing that drives digital cinema deployment today (90% of new digital cinema installations are for 3D, according to industry expert Michael Karagosian), this attachment is not just an accessory, it is a must-have. Sony were keen to tout the virtues of this admittedly ingenious piece of technology in their press release:

The Sony 3D lens adapter maximizes the exclusive technology of the 4K SXRD® imaging device, which displays four times as many pixels as conventional 2K projectors for digital cinema. This allows full 2K resolution for the left and right eye simultaneously, resulting in a high-luminance, full-resolution stereoscopic cinema presentation and is designed to enable more faithful reproduction of motion in 3D.

The 3D capability is provided through hardware on a lens mount that attaches onto the projector and is compatible with all current Sony 4K digital cinema projectors. Installation is seamless and can be done within minutes. It is designed to meet DCI specifications for 3D digital projection.

RealD’s 3D EQ technology enhances the separation of the left and right eye images. In the past, this process was incorporated into the master by the studios; RealD’s new approach incorporates the technology into the digital cinema server and therefore simplifies the distribution process without sacrificing the optimal 3D visual experience.

Interestingly the lens will be provided by RealD rather than Sony. (Incidentally, THR.com saw fit to devote precisely three sentences to this announcement, not counting the headline). Expect more on this 3D capability and performance when SPE’s “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” is released later this summer.

Secondly, as discussed earlier here at Celluloid Junkie, was the Sony-AMC announcement. This revelation produced an audible intake of breath amongst a fair number of fellow exhibitors, industry pundits and (not least) the previously unchallenged Texas Instruments when it was made. Not just because AMC leaped ahead of its DCIP partners Regal and Cinemark in making this announcement, but because it signaled that Sony had the financial clout to enable deployments of its 4K-3D-capable projectors. Technology AND finance is a winning combination these days. A telling paragraph from Variety was:

“This is one of things that doesn’t happen all that often, when you get a chance to do a big deal like this,” Gary Johns, VP at Sony’s Digital Cinema Systems Division, told Daily Variety. “Everybody’s been waiting for the next big deployment.”

Thirdly, there was the fourth VPF announcement by Sony, this one with Walt Disney Studios. With 17 3D titles in the pipeline over the next three years, this was as good a seal of approval that the Sony-RealD technology was ever going to get from Disney. Only Universal and Warner Bros have not yet signed, but four studios is considered ‘critical mass’ when it comes to VPF deals, so it should just be a matter of time before the other two join in. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International’s president, sales and distribution Anthony Marcoly is quoted as saying:

“We’re pleased to be working with Sony’s Digital Cinema Solutions and Services group in deploying this advanced technology and finding new ways to help theater owners upgrade their equipment economically and efficiently. Sony’s 4K projection system offers magnificent state-of-the-art technology, and gives theaters the flexibility for high-quality 2D playback as well as the increasingly important ability to display spectacular 3D productions.”

This counts as an endorsement that goes beyond formal press release obligations, not least that unlike Warner Bros, SPE and Paramount, Disney has not been in the 4K flag waving camp.

Lest we forget, Sony has also gone further than any other studio/electronics company to embrace alternative content and is expected to make more announcements about this soon. Interestingly it was revealed at ShoWest that the capture of the last week of the stage version of “Rent” was a major hit and could have played longer than the one week run that it was programmed for.

But while it was a good show for Sony, it was only the start of what will still be a long journey to win the hearts of minds of exhibitors in the US and the rest of the world. Cinema owners and operators are a conservative bunch with long memories and Sony must still prove that it will not bail on 4K they same way that it walked away from SDDS. Note the apocryphal description of SDDS from Wikipedia:

Whereas SDDS is a well-designed, well executed system, its considerably greater expense was not seen by theatre owners as translating into an increase in ticket sales and so it has not emerged as the dominant of the three systems. Subsequently Sony’s lack of technical support in recent years for the system has exacerbated SDDS’s decline.

Now re-read the above paragraph and substitute ‘SDDS’ for ‘SXRD’ and you will understand why Sony has won this round in the battle of for the hearts and minds of exhibitors but still has a long battle (against TI) ahead.

Patrick von Sychowski
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Patrick von Sychowski

Patrick was a Senior Analyst at Screen Digest, went on to launch the digital cinema operations of Unique and Deluxe Europe, then digitised Bollywood at Adlabs/RMW, and now writes, consults and appears on panels about cinema all over the world.
Patrick von Sychowski
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