Going to the movies in the 21st century is an abysmal experience. The ticket prices are absurdly high, concession prices and sizes have reached outrageous levels and the bread and butter of the movie going experience, getting an image to appear on a big screen, is no longer reliably accomplished. Even for someone who loves movies, going to the multiplex just plain sucks.
I suppose it comes as no surprise to me, then, that the main focus of CinemaCon, a conference put on by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), has been a new projection technology that could become a lucrative box office draw. As you may have heard, 10 minutes of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was projected at 48 frames per second for an audience of theater owners, studio executives and journalists there earlier this week. Jen Yamato has a nice summary of reactions over at Movieline:
The footage, preceded by a taped introduction by Jackson, drew breathless raves for portions of aerial footage whisking, in the style of an IMAX nature doc, over wide landscape shots that seemed to prompt unanimous praise. Then came the character footage, which told another story: At its increased frame rate, Jackson’s 48-fps scenes were reportedly almost too realistic, approximating what many compared to an HD TV or television soap-like quality.
That the footage dropped with a thud is no real surprise. Shooting and projecting images at twice the frame rate that became de rigeur some 90 years ago is going to look shockingly different. If an audience of industry professionals was turned off by the visual shift, will audiences be able to handle it?
Since I haven’t seen the footage I can’t really speak to whether or not 48 fps might be the “next big thing,” albeit presently misunderstood. If I had to guess, I’d bet it actually is a stunning advancement for work that demands it, but something as gauzy and filmic as The Hobbit may not be a project that jibes with the hyper-real look it offers.
The truth is that I don’t care about bringing this technology to the multiplex right now. NATO needs to clean up its own house before it starts shooting from the hip. I get that the goal of CinemaCon is to wow execs and journos, but would it have been so bad if they converged on Las Vegas with the main goal being to figure out how to smooth out the kinks in the digital transition?
You may recall the revelation last year that AMC, the second largest movie chain in the US, had a problem switching out their 3D lenses during 2D presentations, resulting in significant light loss and an overall darker picture. Here’s my favorite quote from an AMC projectionist after the wrong film played with the wrong lens at a screening of Tree of Life in New York City:
Even if it’s not a 3-D movie, if it’s a 3-D projector the 3-D lens is still used. If it’s a 3-D house we have to use a 3-D lens. I haven’t had any complaints about the 3-D lens making 2-D movies dark.
While I didn’t go poking around in the projection booth afterwards, I’m pretty sure that I recently saw Cabin in the Woods with the wrong lens on the projector. I was suspicious because I had seen the movie at SXSW projected on film and I noticed a marked difference in some of the film’s darker sequences. Unsurprisingly, I was at an AMC. Of course, by not complaining, I become part of the problem, allowing this projectionist to go about saying everything is just fine with using the wrong lens. But who wants to police movie theaters?
AMC and other NATO theater chains should be ashamed. They’re not providing a decent product anymore. Even if 48 fps was a hit with the crowd at CinemaCon, I wouldn’t trust these theater chains with it.
The relationship between theater owners and movie-lovers is one of trust, and NATO has lost it. It’s time to earn it back. Put down the shiny new technologies and figure out how to project movies correctly, at every screening, in every theater in the country. That would be something.