Cinema Con Apocalypse

The End of the Cinema Experience?

Last week some major questions about the cinema experience were raised at Cinema Con, the annual convention of American theater owners in Las Vegas.

Previously known as ShoWest, the convention has been relaunched and gathers the National Association of Theatre Owners, who represent over 30,000 movie screens in the US and additional cinema chains from around the world.

Studios go there to preview their big summer blockbusters and get exhibitors excited for upcoming titles like Super 8 and Real Steel.

It is an important place to spot industry trends this year two of the big ones were: higher frame rates and a controversial video on demand scheme backed by four of the major studios.

HIGHER FRAME-RATES

One of the fundamentals of cinema is that films are shown at 24 frames per second, as light is projected through a print on to a screen.

Even with the rise of digital projection systems, this has essentially stayed the same as audiences have got used to this particular look.

One major panel at Cinema Con saw James Cameron, George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg discuss higher framerates for how films are projected.

Cameron was advocating that films in cinemas should be projected at 48 fps or 60fps and that the current generation of digital projectors could easily adopt this with a software upgrade.

But what would films screened at higher frame rates actually look like?

Visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull has long been advocating higher frame rates with his Showscan cinematic process.

After his pioneering work on films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), Trumbull came up with the idea for projecting higher quality images at 60fps on bigger cinema screens.

This NBC news clip in 1984 shows Trumbull promoting Showscan:

For various reasons, it never took off even though in 1993, Trumbull, Geoffrey Williamson, Robert Auguste and Edmund DiGiulio were awarded a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for devloping the system.

Trumbull persisted with a digital version of Showscan, which he thinks has a place in modern cinemas and can improve regular movies as well as those shot on 3D.

In this 2010 video, Trumbull demonstrates Showscan Digital:

Back at CinemaCon, Cameron indicated that he plans to shoot his upcoming Avatar sequels using a technique similar to Showscan.

He unveiled a series of basic scenes shot by Russell Carpenter (his DP on True Lies and Titanic) which involved a medieval set.

They included a lot of camera movements such as pans and sweeps that often cause “strobing” or the appearance of flicker.

The scenes involved included a banquet and a sword fight and part of the presentation was to compare them at different framerates: 24, 48 and 60, as well as 3D.

He spoke earlier this year of his desire for higher frame rates in a talk with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

Part of the argument against higher frame rates is that 24fps is the established look of film and to mess with it is unwise and will make films look weird.

It could also be argued that it would tend to benefit the action spectaculars Cameron specialises in.

But given how much money the director has generated for cinema owners with Terminator 2 (1991), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), the audience would have given serious consideration to his idea.

As studios struggle to deal with declining DVD profits and cinema owners struggle to adapt to shifting audience expectations, it is a development worth watching over the next couple of years.

But that wasn’t the biggest news story to come out of Cinema Con as four of the major studios dropped a major bombshell regarding how films are distributed.

VIDEO ON DEMAND or STUDIOS vs EXHIBITORS

One of the hot topics for the film industry that has been smouldering for a number of years is the issue of the release window.

Since the advent of home video in the early 1980s, there was an established pattern of release for a movie which allowed it to be screened first at cinemas, then on video a few months later and eventually on TV platforms.

Each stage made money for the studios and it was important that one didn’t cannibalise the other.

But over the years the window has gradually shortened to the point that films hit DVD and Blu-ray around 3 months after they have opened in cinemas.

There is a now a growing movement of people that feel the release window is outdated and that audiences should be able to legally access films via download or pay-per-view at the same time as they are released in cinemas.

Obviously, the exhibitors are dead against this.

Not only would it potentially cut into their profits but could be the beginning of a slippery slope where the cinema experience would be badly damaged, perhaps fatally.

So when the news broke during CinemaCon that four of the major studios (Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and Universal) had signed up to a premium VOD service with satellite company DirectTV, it was a major slap in the face to exhibitors.

The details are that DirecTV will allow users to stream titles to their home from April, beginning with titles such as Unknown (the Liam Neeson thriller which came out in the US on February 18th) and Just Go With It (the Adam Sandler comedy which had a February 11th release in the US).

Wide theatrical releases will become available on this service just 60 days after they open at cinemas, at a cost of $30.

This means that the window of release has been shortened even further and NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) issued a swift statement, expressing “surprise and strong disappointment” at the move.

Firstly, they were pissed at the basic idea:

On March 30, it was reported that Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and Universal planned to release a certain number of their films to the home 60 days after their theatrical release in “premium” Video on Demand at a price point of $30. On behalf of its members, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) expresses our surprise and strong disappointment.

Then there was the timing (although I guess the studios plan was to ruffle feathers and get attention):

Theater operators were not consulted or informed of the substance, details or timing of this announcement. It’s particularly disappointing to confront this issue today, while we are celebrating our industry partnerships at our annual convention – CinemaCon – in Las Vegas. NATO has repeatedly, publicly and privately, raised concerns and questions about the wisdom of shortening the theatrical release window to address the studios’ difficulties in the home market.

Then there was the risks of ‘early-to-the-home VoD':

We have pointed out the strength of theatrical exhibition — revenues have grown in four of the last five years — and that early-to-the-home VoD will import the problems of the home entertainment market into the theatrical market without fixing those problems. The studios have not managed to maintain a price point in the home market and we expect that they will be unable to do so with early VoD. They risk accelerating the already intense need to maximize revenues on every screen opening weekend and driving out films that need time to develop—like many of the recent Academy Award-nominated pictures.

Piracy also got a mention:

They risk exacerbating the scourge of movie theft by delivering a pristine, high definition, digital copy to pirates months earlier than they had previously been available.

Interestingly, Paramount is mentioned as being a hold out. (Could this be because Viacom boss Sumner Redstone has a background in movie exhibition?):

Paramount has explicitly cited piracy as a reason they will not pursue early VoD. Further, they risk damaging theatrical revenues without actually delivering what the home consumer seems to want, which is flexibility, portability and a low price.

Then the big guns really came out:

These plans fundamentally alter the economic relationship between exhibitors, filmmakers and producers, and the studios taking part in this misguided venture. We would expect cinema owners to respond to such a fundamental change and to reevaluate all aspects of their relationships with these four studios. As NATO’s Executive Board noted in their open letter of June 16, 2010, the length of a movie’s release window is an important economic consideration for theater owners in whether, how widely and under what terms they book a film.

Additionally, cinema owners devote countless hours of screen time each year to trailers promoting the movies that will play on their screens. With those trailers now arguably promoting movies that will appear shortly in the home market to the detriment of theater admissions, we can expect theater owners to calculate just how much that valuable screen time is worth to their bottom lines and to the studios that have collapsed the release window. The same consideration will no doubt be given to the acres of wall and floor space devoted to posters and standees.

And to finish there was what appeared to be a thinly veiled threat:

In the end, the entire motion picture community will have a say in how the industry moves forward. These studios have made their decision in what they no doubt perceive to be their best interests. Theater owners will do the same.

The above words could be read as: “You want to put Liam Neeson thrillers and Adam Sandler comedies on to VOD? Fine, we just won’t show them”.

Exhibitors still have this powerful weapon.

If they choose not to promote or even screen films, then that would almost certainly turn an expensively assembled theatrical release into a straight-to-DVD leper.

Earlier this year, the UK’s three big cinema chains – Odeon, Vue and Cineworld – threatened to boycott Alice in Wonderland in protest against Disney’s plan to shorten the theatrical run by bringing forward the DVD release date.

Eventually, agreements were reached but it highlighted the fact that big studios also have a powerful bargaining chip: they have the hit films cinemas need in order to survive.

But is it conceivable that in the future they could make a major film available on home platforms and bypass cinemas?

It would appear that established filmmakers are on the side of the cinemas.

During a Warner Bros presentation for The Hangover Part II, director Todd Phillips got wild applause for pledging his support for exhibitors.

Even futurists like Cameron and Lucas are still big believers in the theatrical experience.

But if you are on the studio side advocating the VOD argument, you might think that this is a bridge that should be crossed sooner rather than later.

The costs of digital distribution are lower and VOD potentially reaches the audiences who can’t make it to a cinema.

With lower-budget films dependent of word of mouth such as 127 Hours or Win Win, a studio like Fox Searchlight might argue that a mixed model of theatrical and VOD might benefit those films, as they would get more people watching and paying for them than is currently the case.

Strangely, it could be the more specialised films with lower marketing budgets that benefit more from the current plans.

But there are also those arguing that folding the release window is a suicidal move that would kill profits.

Former Twentieth Century Fox chief Bill Mechanic said to Bloomberg:

Every time [a film] plays the studios are earning back more money. If you eliminate all that to one window, it is completely destructive to the overall film business. This is myopic …very short-sighted and a very bad idea.

An anonymous columnist posted on The Wrap warning of a cinema apocalypse:

Film studios seem determined to kill the movie business completely. After putting video stores out of business by authorizing Redbox to rent videos for $1 per day from what amounts to a Coke machine, now they want to put movie theaters in a coma by authorizing a new at-home video-on-demand release during what has until now been the exclusive first-run theater window. As for the impact on theatrical attendance, I believe it will be devastating. However, among studio execs the best case quoted to me was a 10 percent drop in attendance with the executives insisting that, “Some theaters will close, others will raise prices … it’s all good.” The reality is that a 10 percent drop in total attendance, across the board and permanent, will cause 2/3 of all the theaters in the U.S. to close their doors and never open again.

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that there is a larger cultural change going on.

Although large numbers of the general public enjoy going to the cinema, the pace of technological change in devices (TVs, computers) and the distribution of films has made a key section of the audience impatient as to what, when and where the see something.

Major studios can gauge this and are willing to burn bridges with exhibitors in order to satisfy this demand and reduce their distribution costs.

I don’t think anyone film fan wants to see the theatrical experience go away, as it remains the best way to experience the medium.

But this move by the big studios makes it feel like major changes are just over the horizon.

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