No More Silver Screens In France

By J. Sperling Reich | March 11, 2012 12:34 pm PDT
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By 8:00 am Friday morning I had three voicemails and five emails all either trying to pass along or confirm the same implausible news. Rumor was spreading fast that France’s Le Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, otherwise known as the CNC, had banned silver screens throughout the country, giving exhibitors a five year timeframe to comply. If true, it could have enormous implications in the 3D market.

I initially thought some announcement the CNC had made was being misinterpreted after the rumor mill twisted it into something far more alarming. As a part of France’s Ministry of Culture the CNC is responsible for regulating cinema as well as the production and promotion of “audiovisual arts” within the country, so it’s easy to see how such a rumor could be easily believed. However, a quick trip to the CNC website informed me the news was accurate.

At the start of a six day conference on technology in exhibition and distribution, CNC president Eric Garandeau announced an “agreement to ensure the quality of film screenings in movie theaters in the digital age.” In his opening remarks Garandeau acknowledged all the hard work that goes into making a movie and that, “if so many people put so much care to seek perfection in the image, it is necessary that these efforts are visible and even sublimated on the screen, in the most beautiful manner.” Wanting to see the difference for himself, Garandeau held a test screening to see “if a layman could make a comparison and tell the difference between a white screen and a silver screen.”

Garandeau says he saw the bright smile of Oscar winning actor Jean Dujardin switch from white to gray during the test and that the brightness level at the edges of the screen, compared to the center, decreased significantly. Not surprising since color balance, luminance consistency, and hot spots are the major drawbacks when it comes to silver screens, especially when they are used for 2D films.

The CNC consulted with exhibitors on how to fix such problems and eventually brokered a consensus everyone could agree on. “I will therefore make the following decision,” said Garandeau in announcing the accord. “Based on the one hand the current situation of cinemas, the financial and contractual commitments of the operators, but also the need to ensure a quality projection in line with the best standards, the highest standards must be completely met for the quality of projection within five years.”

To avoid any debate over just what those high standards might be, Garandeau continued, “Clearly, this means that in five years the NF S 27-001 standard will apply to all auditoriums, as well as the NF-S EXCEPT 27-100 standard relating to luminance. In five years, all auditoriums will fully comply with both standards including luminance. During this time a monitoring group – representing both the CST and operators – will be formed to work on technological solutions best suited to achieve this standard. The speed of technical developments is constantly increasing and we must ensure awareness among hardware manufacturers, so they can incorporate this objective and this constraint into their R & D policies.”

The standard Garandeau is referencing here is NF S 27100 which was published by the Association Francaise de Normalisation (AFNOR) in 2006 to define the minimum image quality for digital cinema within France. Ironically, it was the CNC who just last year suggested relaxing this very same standard, though reversed course upon receiving industry pushback. NF S 27100 not only incorporates the DCI standard but is far stricter when it comes to luminance levels. The standard stipulates that the maximum light tolerance between the center of the screen and its edges be no more than 20%. On most silver screens the disparity is 50%. Unfortunately, many of the large cinema chains in France use a polarized 3D system which requires a silver screen.

I’ll spare you the part where NF S 27100 also calls for the image luminance of both 2D and 3D content to be 48 cd/m², or 14 ft-L. That’s fine for 2D content but a far cry from the 4.5 ft-L that has become the industry norm for 3D films, at least in North America.

The CNC’s decision comes after numerous French trade organizations, including Commission Supérieure Technique de l’Image et du Son (CST) and Auteurs Réalisateurs Producteurs (L’ARP), complained about image quality on silver screens. It will affect French exhibitor usings 3D technology manufactured by Imax, MasterImage and RealD, all of whom use silver screens. Other 3D systems such as Volfoni and XpanD, which employs active-shutter glasses, or Dolby, which applies color filtration, can be used with existing white screens.

There are roughly 5,400 modern cinema screens in France of which 4,000 have been converted to digital. According to the CNC, 2,519 of the digital screens are equipped for 3D with 1,200 of them presently using silver screens. If CNC doesn’t revise its decision or if the luminance levels figures in the standard aren’t amended French exhibitors will have to ditch their silver screens by 2017 or the manufacturers whose systems require such screens will have to come up with a solution.

There is a caveat to the CNC announcement that would allow French exhibitors to continue using silver screens. If an auditorium is dedicated to showing only 3D content, and will not be showing 2D films, then a silver screen can be used.

This could all be bad news for RealD, a leading global provider of 3D technology to cinemas. While the RealD system is credited with projecting one of the brightest images on the market, it also uses a silver screen. The rest of the world has yet to decide whether to follow France’s lead in regards to silver screens, though since RealD alone has an install base of over 16,000 screens, one might say the horse has already left the barn… at least for now.

J. Sperling Reich