Conversation: The Tech Potential and Promise of CinemaCon 2017

By Patrick von Sychowski | April 12, 2017 6:42 pm PDT

This is an online conversation about what a group of us saw and thought about CinemaCon 2017 and also a visit to leading facilities, studios and cinemas in Los Angeles the week before. Joining the virtual chat are myself, J. Sperling Reich, the Executive Editor of Celluloid Junkie, one of our regular contributors CJ Flynn, IHSMarkit Research Director for Cinema/EDCF President David Hancock and Julian Pinn of Julian Pinn Ltd, who also happens to be the Tech Adviser to UNIC and head of IBC’s Big Screen Committee. (All the opinions expressed are the authors’ own.)

Patrick: Several of us appear to agree that this CinemaCon was the most significant one in many years, though not for one specific reason. It seems to come at a critical time for the industry, with consolidation of exhibitors, expiry of Virtual Print Fees (VPFs), the uncertainty of DCI specifications being replaced by competing proprietary solutions (Dolby Cinema, 4DX, Barco Escape, etc.), shrinking release windows, the growth of China and more. Yet, if I was to pick one standout of the show it would be Sony and Samsung showcasing their displays that do away with the need for a projector in favour of a direct view screen. Would you agree?

Sperling: I would a have to agree with you about this year’s CinemaCon.  I’ve thought a lot about whether this year’s show felt more significant than the last few.  Certainly I don’t think the studio presentations were all that noteworthy. Twentieth Century Fox and Sony put on a good show, and Warner Bros. always has some interesting clips to bring, but I was a little surprised that Disney simply rattled off a list off their upcoming films over the course of 15 minutes without showing a single frame of footage. Instead, I think what made this year’s CinemaCon feel more consequential than others is because of precisely what you’ve highlighted Patrick; on the cusp of VPF’s ending and exhibitors are entering a phase of equipment refresh at a time where some of the new technology offers improvements that will be noticeably better to cinemagoers.  

It feels as if manufacturers are beginning to position themselves for this new sales cycle over the next few years while exhibitors are poking around in search of the best options to differentiate their theatres not only from competitors but home viewing.  During this year’s CinemaCon, the LED screens being demonstrated by Sony and Samsung were a perfect example of all this.  They also happened to be the most unique or buzzworthy technology on at the show.

CJ Flynn: Although I like the LED walls, I think that there is still a lot of ‘if’ in their development, productization and implementation. Like I said in a separate Celluloid Junkie article, 1) by virtue of their price and other component issues, they also will be a proprietary ‘share of the ticket’ venture, and a small niche solution for a long time, and that 2) there are other more compelling items that will have a larger and more immediate effect on the audience experience and the industry.

For example, if Dolby, with their new 32 channels amplifier in 4U rack, and IMB with Atmos, and Atmos ceiling grid speakers, can truly drive the parts and installation price down of installing Atmos to a wider and deeper part of the customer pyramid, the number of auditoriums that can play a more refined sound could go into the multiple 10s of thousands very quickly. It’s been said that there is no way to upcharge for that, just as there wasn’t for new seating, but Immersive Audio as the new normal is a differentiating product, a disruptive product line, to supply something that most people can’t get at home.

David: I love Cinemacon and have rarely been to a bad one in my 11 now. This year, I felt that the mood was overall one of optimism and yet a little caution too. The end of VPFs, and the uncertainty about how to finance replacement operational technology as well as affording premium technology, not to mention the amount of technology on offer, is creating a slight atmosphere of confusion amongst all sides. People tend to think the studios are behind most things but I get the impression that they are also at least neutral on technology, and as much watching the market as we all are.

Technology innovation is a great thing, and cinema is a very vibrant industry because of it: it makes all our lives more interesting, both as consumers of cinema and practitioners/analysts of the industry. What customers will pay for, how to differentiate the cinema from the home, how to react in the face of non-theatrical innovations, the impact of a new revenue-generating window, engaging millennials and attracting audiences are all the things we should be talking about as an industry. We are very lucky to be in a grown up industry, with a high level of discussion and openness about most topics.

Patrick: Most of us were only able to see the Sony demonstration as the Samsung was invitation-only, as well as off-site, with trade press not a priority right now. CJ, you and Julian were two of the few to get to see it. Would it be fair to compare the two solutions and presentations, given that both are prototypes at this stage, though with Samsung hinting theirs will be DCI compliant in a matter of weeks and shipping before the end of the year?

CJ Flynn: Given the caveat that you mentioned, that it is grossly unfair to nay-say a work-in-progress and that these comments are meant to educate each other, not as negative criticism, these two products showed that there is a technology of incredible potential in the wings. And indeed, Samsung has made a couple of clever moves that are not in the Sony product yet, though it is incredibly bold to stand people right next to a 1,000 nit screen as Sony did.

First is that Samsung have converted their unit to be a 16-bit device, away from the UHD standard of 10-bit that I am told that Sony’s is currently at. And, as you mentioned, Samsung’s literature and verbal explanation tells that they have gone through the process of the DCI Compliance Test Plan at Keio University Test Facility, though it is not yet on the DCI site for some reason. (The DCIMovies.com site is rather up to date, as you’ll notice that the Dolby IMB 3000 is on the DCI site dated 17 March, a week before CinemaCon started.)

Sperling: Well, like Patrick mentioned, I didn’t get a chance to see Samsung.  It didn’t help that the demo was offsite at CinemaCon… or that we weren’t invited to see it.  But it seems like what you’re saying CJ is that these displays are a work in progress, which I’d have to agree with.  The Sony display was stunning, but I could see that fine tuning it for use in cinemas might be needed.  I’m also wondering whether mastering content specifically for these types of displays will be of any benefit.

Demonstration footage shown on the Sony CLEDIS screen. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Demonstration footage shown on the Sony CLEDIS screen. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

CJ Flynn:  I’ll describe a couple of incidents that show where they still have work to do. At the Sony demonstration, you are guided into a dark room, seated and after a few comments someone says, “Oh, by the way, the wall in front of you is on.” It was, of course, all but pitch black. As you stare at it you can see the lines between internal blocks, which must be the same with the Samsung units since they made the comment that they will be putting some type of Mylar behind the LEDs to hide any sign of the modular components. (If they turn that mylar into ribbon speakers, I want part of the royalties.) But, the blacks are as stunning as when you see them in an exceptional Dolby Cinema room.

At the Sony demo, you are seated less than a screen height away and everything is strikingly sharp and amazing. The “Billy Lynn” material is just as sensational, though perhaps one is too close…there was a sense of graininess in the dust which may just have been the combination of 10-bit and closeness, or it may have been things that the director didn’t think anyone would be close enough to see. But for that movie, the motion blur is just Capital G, Gone, and the colors are astounding. They had some other material that was incredible too.

Samsung had a logo and other writing across their screen upon entering and unfortunately it wasn’t so provocative when they pointed out how the rest of the screen was black, partly because my attention couldn’t unfix from the fact that the aliasing (or some other issue) was causing their logo and the other words to show pixelation, even though we were quite purposefully seated about 1.5 screen heights back.

They played several preview clips at 500 nits which I understood were converted from BluRay. The final extended clip was a long piece from the movie “The Great Wall” which had been sent to post for another specific pass for that demo. Since it was re-color timed for that brightness, it was all the things that you would expect, precise and vibrant, with detail in the darks.

David: The standout issue of Cinemacon for me is LED screens. I wasn’t expecting it, and maybe that heightened its importance for me. I only saw the Sony demo of its Crystal LED screen. They pointed out that it was by no means a product but was being shown in order to gain feedback on this technology and to see whether this technology had a future in cinema. The sound was not the primary point in being there and had not been set up to the same standard as the screen. I have factored that into my thinking. I thought the image was stunning but also bow to those with greater expertise in judging technology from these angles.

There are a couple of important areas with LED in cinema: I feel that this technology will be divisive. Some will love it because of the quality and the operational advantages, some will hate it because it is projection-less and ‘just not cinema’. It has a very long lifespan, which can help make a business case for it, but in fact, the lifespan is probably too long, as most business cases are made up to a period of 10-15 years. The Cost of such a screen can be mitigated by lifespan, but it is very high at present. This will come down and it does offer a TCO argument. Any migration to LED would take a long time for the whole industry, maybe even several decades.

One of its main effects as we speak now is to muddy the waters for a future path for replacing the first generation of digital cinema. The exhibitor is now offered several conflicting paths for new equipment: Xenon, UHP mercury, laser phosphor (two types), RGB laser (two types), LED screens.

Sperling:  When “The Hobbit” was first shown in High Frame Rate (HFR) there was a lot of talk, all of it legitimate, that filmmakers would have to learn how to shoot in that format, otherwise every movie would look like it was shot on hi-def video.  As well, you could really make out all the sets and costumes thanks to the clarity HFR allows.  If these displays gain traction, which is highly probable, I wonder if creatives will need to change how they shoot movies to best be shown on them.

David: Good point Sperling; Ang Lee has said many times that Billy Lynn required making up a whole new language of film, and the process of shooting the film was forever coming up against methods that just didn’t work when shooting as he did (4K, 3D and 120 frames per second per eye): everything from make-up to acting method had to be re-invented as they went along.

Stunned looks at Sony's CLEDIS demo. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Stunned looks at Sony’s CLEDIS demo. Sony’s Oliver Pasch is at right, Julian Pinn is second from left, UNIC’s Kim Pedersen between them. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

CJ Flynn:  Well, I’ll describe one scene that stuck out for me to make a point. A lead character was in a line on the wall with several subalterns between him and the other lead character, both who were exchanging conversation. All the actors were in focus and probably the director had chosen the other actors to be slightly in shadow to keep the leads in our attention. But at that super brightness everyone was bright enough and in focus enough that you couldn’t tell who was speaking, and I was thrown out of my suspension of disbelief while searching around to figure it out. Usually we hear the voice pan a bit from the center as the scene changes, but the LED wall doesn’t have speakers behind it that could facilitate this. They were above the screen.

So, I lost the ventriloquism effect, that “auto-lip sync”, “visual capture” tendency that the human hearing system uses when it is given enough cues. I had earlier noticed that the audio was coming from above the screen, but my senses had given over to the big picture…so to speak. But at that moment it became glaring and disconcerting.

Of course, it is the colorist’s job to have pushed those secondary players further into the background, and I suspect they were in the regular pass. But it points out that there can be no magic (and inexpensive and quick) mezzanine-to-other-formats pass…there will be additional long hours of expense that productions and studios will have to accommodate for …including their nemesis, more versions for every release.

Patrick: The one sub-optimal aspect of the Sony demo in my view was the audio, which was not up to the level of the stunning images we saw. How was this tackled in the Samsung demo?  Julian, do you feel that the issue of not being able to have speakers behind the screen will impact the future roll-out of this technology?

Julian: We’ve always heard, and we keep hearing, that HDR is the most-important parameter to improve to give filmmakers greater scope to immerse audiences into their visceral cinematographic vision. The images we saw from both Sony’s and Samsung’s LED walls at CinemaCon this year were jaw-droppingly stunning—aside from some obvious, to me at least, motion-artifacts (more from one manufacturer than the other). I do hope that these artifacts will be considered seriously and fixed, even if not noticed by many. There were only two aspects that took me out of the movie experience and motion-judder was one; the other was the poor sound quality. There were so many positives to be said, it is such a shame that sound is again taking a second place.

However, do the positives in imaging outweigh these negatives in sound? Well to me, no way: I’d take SDR with proper cinema sound in favour of HDR with compromised sound any day. Sound is the emotional connection to the movie, more so than images. There is something very connecting about a horn-loaded loudspeaker situated dead centre and directly behind a perforated screen aiming at the audience. The horn interacts with the room less so than a direct radiator and the audience is convincingly spoken to directly from the lips of the actors from the Centre speaker. Sony’s demo was basic Left and Right with no Centre at all. It was a clearly a demo, and not in a cinema room, of the imaging capabilities of the LED wall—however, it could very easily have also been an experiential demo rather than just an imaging demo with a little extra attention and respect for sound—especially as the images were stunningly superb.

However, Samsung’s demo was indeed a cinema setup and therefore a cinematic demo—but the 5.1 audio was poor. The dialogue sounded like it was coming from another room and that, to me, seemed to be because the centre loudspeaker (situated above the screen) was interacting with the reverberation of the room more than the traditional behind-the-screen approach. The sync was a little off too, which quickly destroys the illusion of convincing unification with the action… and immediately we’re out of the movie, losing the immersive benefits that HDR would otherwise give. The saving grace, perhaps, is that Samsung’s very recent acquisition of Harman ought to bring some fresh R&D and cinema experience into this space and hopefully improve matters. All in all, HDR is—and should be—a very welcome development in cinema and witnessing one or two new vendors in this HDR space should very much be taken significantly and positively so long as—at the same time—the fragile nuances that make for good cinema are respected.

CJ Flynn: On questioning, Samsung showed an extra slide about sound, including the current state. Their belief is that the future state will be handled by their partners at the Harmon Group, which Samsung bought a few months ago. Indeed, Harman and JBL have a lot of audio experience in general and cinema experience in particular, plus many divisions like Lexicon with clever digital technology that can be applied to put the sound where we expect it to be. But that is a science project, then a productizing project and may be different for each size room.

Speaking of different sized rooms, they did mention another size than the 30 foot system, which brings up a subtle twist. When you add twice as many bricks across and twice that down to make a larger ‘screen’, you magically get 8K pixels. There have to be implications to that which no one has talked about. And with sizes in between…well, with a projector and a screen we don’t think of it as scaling, but that will be what that type of a wall system will have to do, especially for in-between sizes.

One wonders whether there will be a similar caveat for LED walls similar to the one on the DCI site about laser illuminated projectors passing the Compliance Test Plan.

And, as expected, because of the increased brightness the motion blur and lower resolution CGI effects became much more of an obvious issue, and not only for the action scenes. I don’t know if everyone will be consciously aware of it at first, but as our eyes get more used to the overall increase in quality, it will eventually be an annoyance to even an unsophisticated user..  

The closest many of us got to the Samsung screen at CinemaCon. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

The closest many of us got to the Samsung screen at CinemaCon. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

Sperling: I know there are ways to direct audio from the top, bottom and sides of the screen to make it sound as if it’s coming from behind the screen, though I’m not sure where the technology stands, nor its cost.  For home viewing, soundbars have hit the market over the past couple of years meant to be placed under television screens for this very purpose.  I’m not sure how applicable that kind of solution would be to cinema.

David: I am not qualified to comment but as with most technology questions, my working assumption is that people cleverer than me will work out a solution. 

Patrick: Sony’s Oliver Pasch says he doesn’t like the term “direct view”, which sounds too much like television. Instead he proposes something like “active cinema screens” (ACS). Can anyone think up a better nomenclature?

Sperling: Funny you should mention that because that very question, what to call such displays, has been bouncing around my head ever since seeing the Sony demonstration on the opening day of CinemaCon.  My initial thought was to call it a “direct display”, however Oliver felt it was probably best to keep the word “screen” in the name, which I understand.  I don’t mind the “active cinema screen” moniker or its ACS acronym and so far, haven’t come up with anything better.

David: I quite like Oliver’s Active Cinema Screen name. Others that have occurred to me are: Direct Cinema Screen; Projectionless screen; Projection-free screen;

Patrick: My suggestion is ‘electronic screen’, but whatever we call it, I think we’ve covered this topic enough for now. My other take-away from CinemaCon 2017 is that laser seems like the norm now, even with Christie effectively ditching blue phosphor and maintaining a Xenon business. Is this good news for cinema and what will the impact be for the imminent replacement cycle. I know some people have expressed hope that it could lead to better 3D – or has that ship sailed?

CJ Flynn: 3D may have to claw back, but I think high brightness gives it the opportunity. There will be movies like “Gravity” in the future which – correct me if I’m wrong Sperling since I remember the stats from Showbiz Sandbox – I believe Gravity had an 80% 3D component of the box office or something like that for weeks into the run, instead of the current situation of 40%-ish at launch and dropping fast after the first weekend. My feeling is that bright and well done 3D, whether accomplished in camera or in post, will make people forget the glasses, and headaches and other complaints just disappear when the human visual system doesn’t have to work so hard to be tricked.

If the exhibitors only play 3D in the rooms that have the luminance headroom for it, and especially if RealD can make arrangements for their new screen [insert name here] to be a component, then the confusion can be wrung from the market.

Sperling: You are spot on CJ in regards to the percentage of the box office 3D represented for “Gravity” back in 2013 and 2014.  It was 80%.  The bottom line for any 3D, and this may sound cliché at this point, but it has to be done properly and it needs to add value.  I purposely sought out a 3D showing of “Doctor Strange” with laser projection because I knew it would actually change my perception of the film itself.  The 3D element in that film actually added to its artistry.

As for all this talk about laser, there are obviously a number of questions on the industry’s mind, such as whether the significantly higher cost of a laser projector is worth the price in the long run.  Will exhibitors actually save money over 10 years by not having to buy bulbs, or like purchasing a brand new hybrid car, are they paying a higher price than any amount they will ever save not having to buy as much gas?  As a cinemagoer I can tell you that everyone I’ve ever taken to see a movie shown using a laser projector has commented immediately afterward about how great the picture looked.

Barco RGB laser projection at Regal LA Live. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Barco RGB laser projection at Regal LA Live. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

David: One manufacturer is backing RGB and laser phosphor and is no longer introducing any new models of Xenon-based projectors, one is firmly behind laser phosphor, one likes RGB laser and Xenon and the non-DLP manufacturer seems happy with the UHP mercury bulbs and has shown their version of a laser projector as well. This does not make laser a norm just yet, but it is certainly edging that way. There is a laser solution for all screens now (either RGB or laser phosphor) and despite the fact that I hear from people more qualified than me that some issues like speckle have not yet been solved, laser illuminated projection is a market reality not a future possibility.

Clearly there is a split in opinion on types of laser that will work in the market, and that is a key issue here: Is laser phosphor a short -term technology or not? LIP certainly offers some benefits to exhibitors and solves some identified problems, such as brightness for 3D, and the costs are coming down. Laser phosphor is not that much more expensive than Xenon-based digital cinema is now, and the TCO argument is one that responds to how exhibitors think. It is not up to me to say whether it is valid or not, that depends on the circuit in question and is a judgement for them, but as the full-scale replacement cycle approaches, laser is clearly a viable option as that replacement.

As for 3D, I believe that cinema needs to tackle this question head-on now: we are left as the main 3D medium for entertainment viewing, which could be an important point of differentiation. When I see ‘good’ 3D, I am blown away. When I see ‘bad’ 3D, I think what’s the point? We know that 3D done right can be stunning, as a few films have shown us…but not enough films have shown us this. If we do not address 3D, and look to refresh or re-boot the format, then I believe it will wither and die as audiences in enthusiastic markets slowly get fed up with it. If we can re-boot a film franchise, why can’t we do it with a format. With an installed base of 87,000 3D equipped screens in the world, it would be a great loss if we let this die away.

CJ Flynn: Great loss indeed, from many angles. RealD points out that, as an example, if you take the Marvel movies gross of 8.3 billion dollars, 1 billion of that was 3D generated…not an insignificant number. And combining their new Ultimate Screen – which they’re beta’ing in 70 rooms around the world, and a new High Contrast Lens, and tweaking the entendue of the laser illuminated projectors, and getting their exhibitor customers to amp up the room filtration and batten down the dark with better non-reflective room surfaces, they’re hoping to vitalize their RealD Cinema PLF message to sway more people to that experience.   

Patrick: The EclairColor demo impressed me, not so much for the footage (most of which I had seen earlier), but for the concerted effort to break into the North American market. A senior studio tech executive told me in LA the week before that “cinemas aren’t asking us for it,” and didn’t seem to have an appetite for yet another DCP flavour (i.e. additional cost). What do you see as the prospects for EclairColor in this and other markets?

David: I like EclairColor. It offers HDR at an affordable price, and is an innovative solution for a particular problem. I also like that it keeps Eclair as a relevant brand in the industry. It is having some success in Ymagis’s home market of Europe, and may well grow there before it goes wider. I believe It is currently limited to one projector brand, as it was developed with it, which limits its take up at present and they may need to make it more widely available on other projectors.

CJ Flynn: I noticed announcements just recently that there is now a commercial product [FirePost] for colorists being sold with the EclairColor tools, and a couple post houses have announced capabilities.

But it is a tough sell, perhaps another one where the pioneer gets all the arrows. There is a capability, a niche, between Dolby’s million-to-one (or Samsung’s mistakenly called infinity-to-one) contrast ratio and the current 4K non-laser standard of 1800:1. The new generation of RGB lasers that deserve an extra colorists pass to really knock us out and Eclair is positioning their techniques and branding as the ne plus ultra for this niche. Otherwise there is a limit in the potential of what the audience gets to see and what the exhibitor gets to display after they have made the investment to display something extra special.

Perhaps because there is no DCI 2.0 or Next Gen Cinema standards or investigations at this point, there is no platform for someone like Eclair to say that “We provide a solution for a problem that was identified by all the golden eyes and golden slide rule set.” My guess is that all the science types are busy still with new commitments to ACES 2.0 and finishing IMF and stuck in the Immersive Audio projects, all the while making new products for us to see at the shows.

EclairPlay, Sphera and EclairColor at CinemaCon. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

EclairPlay, Ymagis’ Sphera and EclairColor at CinemaCon. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

Patrick: Variety claims that CinemaCon ignored the “early VOD elephant in the room”, but to me it seems that elephant was next door, where talks and negotiations were being carried out by proponents, studios, cinemas, with NATO urging all parties to talk, but not leak to the press – which is what Variety thrived on. Even Sean Parker (one of the founders of The Screening Room, a PVOD entity) was apparently in Vegas. The telecoms-owned studios (Comcast’s Universal and AT&T’s Warner Bros) were the loudest proponent, with WB Sue Kroll even bringing it up during the showreel and getting push back from Christopher Nolan “The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,” Nolan told us at CinemaCon.  Meanwhile Disney alegedly boycotts these talks. It seems like shorter windows is a foregone conclusion at this stage, although day-and-date seems unlikely. Or have I misinterpreted the mood music at the show?

David: Ah, shorter windows..the perennial discussion that never seems to actually happen. As IHS Markit research shows, the theatrical window narrows each year anyway, especially for digital releases. However, I know we are not discussing that.

There are a few key issues here for me:

  1. The real reason for this discussion, and for studios to keep the idea alive, is that some of them wish to create a new revenue stream to make up for the decline in physical DVD revenues. This is not a bad aim: that money keeps the investment in production and marketing at its current levels possible. The success of the studio slates over the past few years shows that the big-budget tentpole movies are key to driving movie-going at a global level.
  2. That aim may be laudable in itself, but that doesn’t mean that this is the way to achieve it. The home entertainment sector is moving away from a high-value transactional model to a lower-value subscription model  – the idea of a premium VOD window providing these extra revenues, when the VOD window itself couldn’t do it, seems counter intuitive. Previous attempts and research I have seen suggest that a high price for earlier viewing at home is not guaranteed to succeed.
  3. The previous attempts to do this have always been with lesser films so we don’t really know how people would react faced with a tentpole film offered to the home. However, we know how the exhibitors reacted in the past: boycott and deter. The united front from exhibitors worked in deterring films being released early. The mood music now though from exhibitors has softened slightly, with some larger US circuits apparently open to such discussions and the potential revenue cut on offer.
  4. This is not inherently a bad approach, engage and see if such a model works for them. However, this is no longer a united front on the part of exhibitors. The prospects of success though don’t depend on the exhibitor, but on the customer being willing to pay up to $50 for a film viewing.
  5. As cinemas offer an increasing array of differentiation from the home, this makes a home viewing of a tentpole movie counter to the trend of viewing a tentpole movie – see it in a cinema.
  6. The new window is splitting the industry too; some filmmakers seem happy to support it, others are fervently against it.
  7. A new revenue-generating window is not a bad thing in itself, but I feel that cinema is the key transactional window for a film release, bestowing credibility on a film that a straight to DVD, straight to TV release does not have. It generates audience awareness, generates revenue, generates value in subsequent windows, and generates revenues in areas like merchandising, publishing and music…mess around with the cinema window and get it wrong, and you risk destroying the key value generator of a film. As other industries have shown us, do that and you can’t get it back.

Sperling: I’m not sure how to follow David’s comments, as he was quite thorough and hit on everything I would say, and more.  Certainly I agree that a healthy home video market is a good thing for the industry as a whole, since it means studios can make more movies, exhibitors can show more movies, and cinemagoers get to see more movies.  But you know it’s interesting that you should say shorter windows are a “foregone conclusion” Patrick.  I think the studios want the industry to believe that.  They have been feeding that line to members of the press and the public for some time now.  Like politicians these days who seem to believe if they repeatedly say some partisan talking point at enough town hall meetings or to multiple cable news networks, eventually what they are predicting will come true.  (The recently forecasted collapse of Obamacare comes to mind.)  But at the end of the day, a theatrical release still helps build credibility for a movie in its downstream ancillary markets.  

If I provided you with a list of ten movie titles and told you five were Netflix originals and five were completely made up films, I bet you’d have difficulty telling me which were actually the Netflix releases.  There is absolutely no reason for cinema operators to shorten the time frame in which they receive exclusivity on a product, possibly jeopardizing the future purchasing habits of the current customer base, without receiving something huge in return from the manufacturer of the product.  No matter how often studios want us to believe PVOD is around the corner, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about it again next year.  That said, when someone figures out how to make it work, the floodgates will open, just as once “Avatar” proved audiences would see 3D films, practically every film was released and shown in 3D.

Patrick: Having called it a “forgone conclusion”, I will now slightly contradict myself by pointing to new research indicating most people in the US would NOT pay a premium to watch a film early in the home, but that still leaves a sizeable enough market for studios to hanker after some of that dissipated DVD retail/rental revenue, as David noted. Let’s see if it becomes a reality by next year.

Testing Imax VR. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Testing Imax VR. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

And speaking of ‘reality’, I didn’t have time to try the virtual reality (VR) demos at the show – including the IMAX VR ‘The Mummy Zero Gravity’ experience and Nomadic’s location-based demo – but I did play around with IMAX VR at the Los Angeles facility the week before. It seems like a fabulous 360-degree arcade experience, but I don’t see it as anything more than at best a compliment to the cinema experience, perhaps a promotional opportunity for film (though probably not “Dunkirk”) and definitely not a threat to cinema.

CJ Flynn: I’d agree with you Patrick. A couple weeks before CinemaCon there was the news that the gaming business will soon go over 100 billion in revenues (Digital Gaming set to Become $100bn Industry by end of 2017), and now have their own special built auditoriums among dozens of other methods of capturing the youth market’s attention and money. (Not Just a Game) It also is a tangled web that includes other arms of the studios, and spin offs of those arms and who knows what else. Whether IMAX or others can cut into that or whether it makes sense for cinemas to delve into it depends on deals that may need subsidizing for a while. Best we get out of it is constantly advancing graphics chips for our computers.

Sperling: Don’t get me started on VR.  The ambiguity in that statement is purposeful.  That way if the format takes off in cinemas I can say I always knew it had a future.  Right now though I haven’t seen anything that’s all that compelling or isn’t a 10 minute parlor trick.  I’m not sure I’d spend a whole lot of time seeking a VR experience out in cinemas.  Even so, I might improperly say the same thing about 4D and motion seats, which I notice nobody has brought up in this conversation.  

I’m probably too old and too much of a traditionalist to seek out such a moviegoing experience, but in reality I know that 4D auditoriums are remarkably successful for exhibitors and there is absolutely a market for the format in cinemas.  I just don’t happen to be in the demographic sweet spot for such an amenity.  Long story short (too late), I realize why VR companies want to be at a show like CinemaCon but given all that is going on during the event which is cinema-specific, I simply don’t have enough time to devote to it.

David: I don’t think anyone is suggesting that VR is a threat to cinema. Looking at at it that way seems to be missing the point. It can be a very useful support tool for releasing a movie (while also generating a revenue) and it can be a very useful tool for generating extra revenues in under-utilised space within a cinema. When it comes properly, narrative VR (as opposed to gaming VR) will be limited in length and will not compete with a cinema viewing. I am not the demographic for it, but enjoy it when it is well done, but it is a way to engage with a demographic that most people accept are consuming content in a different way and that is affecting their cinema attendance patterns.

Seating at CinemaCon trade show floor. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Seating at CinemaCon trade show floor. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

Patrick: I only had a short time to walk around the trade show floor, but further to Sperling’s earlier point, it seems like seating (both leather recliners and motion/immersive seating) are the big sellers at the moment. Are we overlooking the importance and impact these type of changes to cinemagoing are having in looking at other technologies and solutions?

CJ Flynn: I even stopped at a booth that had a 3rd party add-on for reclining chairs, a device that allows the cleaning crew to put all the chairs into a cleaning mode via a wireless (not wifi or zigby) command box. Part of their conversion kit is a safety device so that if the electronics in your movable seat decided to become a space heater it will disconnect. They also have a seat getup that adds tremor based upon effects from the soundtracks or even concerts sent through an AES3 connection instead of the usual studio headache and delay of having to make and QC a special track. And, it turns out that they are a new supplier of kit for the blind/partially sighted audience. (TFXProducts.com)

David: Seats are very important, always have been.  The key is to get it right and the other stuff then becomes relevant! Immersive motion seating can add a depth to a movie, and it can also tie in with other technologies (immersive sound, HDR, VR) to heighten their appeal.

A comfortable seat is an essential starting point for a cinema screen; the type and expense of seat will depend on the business model being employed. The one certainty though is that a cinema needs seats (or sofas, or beanbags…) whereas some of the other technology is an optional add-on.

The Big Data Band together on stage at CinemaCon. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

The Big Data Band together on stage at CinemaCon. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

Patrick: Two topics that seem fixtures of any cinema convention these days are Big Data and Millennials/Gen Z. Did we learn anything new this year?

David: I think most people now get Big Data (I prefer analytics as a term). Cinema is playing catch up to some extent compared to several other sectors, especially consumer-facing industries, and I think the challenge now is to integrate all the various digital aspects of a cinema’s existence, including their social media and ticketing activities, so as to maximise the effectiveness of analytics.

CJ Flynn: Just a small point, but we’ve all watched the arc of the film to cinema conversion, and the arc of laser illuminated projectors, which were each over 10 years in the making.

After 3 years of demos, I finally got a visceral experience from one technology that I had previously been ambivalent towards and for which I thought I would never be the target audience. It may be that the Barco Escape has reached a tipping point where, if they can continue to get materials from directors and producers (who have to learn how to use it effectively), it will bring in the younger audience who wants that thrill and doesn’t care about all the .001 luminance stuff that we wade around in. And maybe, given the right movie, it might even pull in the wife and I.

Perhaps the big point is, that is a lot of dedication for a corporation to put into for an entertainment technology development that doesn’t have a clear and obvious need as digital and lasers have had. …and mostly to give a thrilling theater experience to millennials.

Patrick: Barco has definitely put on a big show at CinemaCon these past few days in terms of showing an integrated concept of laser projection, Escape, Auro (though we heard year) less of its Immersive Audio play this year) and the Lobby Experience.

Barco Escape at Regal LA Live. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Barco Escape at Regal LA Live. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

CJ Flynn: I was thinking about the lobby experience when writing about the VR and gaming segment above. What we saw at the Barco Live demo reached into interactivity a scosche, and will certainly continue. And learning that the studios were pitching in on the cost of displays – I even heard the term VPF – that makes it a different ballgame.

David: I liked the lobby experience we saw at Barco LA Live; it was effective at capturing attention and certainly created a ‘showtime’ mood. I didn’t see any others but am sure they will be aiming at the same feeling.

Patrick: And of course the Barco Belgian beer bash, which even without projector mapping has become a focal point in the CinemaCon calendar. Finally, though, let’s not forget that there was also floating candy at that no matter what technologies we discuss, the two stands that seem to get the most traffic are Cretors (popcorn) and Coca-Cola, both of which have been going for 100 years and are likely to last for another century in cinemas.

CJ Flynn: Don’t forget the camaraderie – as we all get evermore pinned down at our binary home/work internet links, it is great to get together. I for one got a lot more than I gave from each of you sitting in ISDCF and SMPTE meetings and listening to the soccer stories of David’s and Sperling’s kids and on the EDCF bus tour – which is still the best bargain in Hollywood. Many thanks.

David: The EDCF tour was a great event; thank you CJ, Julian and Patrick for coming along and adding to the camaraderie. The event works because of who is on it, as much as the generosity of the companies that open their doors to us. Thank you to all of them. It augurs well for another outing next year.

Coca-Cola - still the biggest thing at CinemaCon. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski - Celluloid Junkie)

Coca-Cola – still the biggest thing at CinemaCon. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

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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