The Resuscitation of Cinema

What fascinated me most at IBC was the unspoken question in almost every conference: “Cinema is dead, what happens now?”
Of course, Cinema is not dead, however, in its current form, it is dying. DVD sales now make more more money than the box office. Certainly, simultaneous releases on DVD and on the silver screen will help (as Steven Soderbergh’s next 6 features will be), but the fact of the matter is, theatres cannot compete technologically with the average home entertainment cinema. DIY surround sound is easy, and the quality is great. Screens in the home are large (particularly when coupled with the fact that they are closer and less obscured), and in many ways the picture quality is superior (no dust or scratches, etc.). You can pause a DVD to take a break, there are no interruptions from people fielding cellphone calls, or providing a running commentary, and even the food is cheaper. All in all, watching movies at home is a more relaxed, pleasant experience.
So how can cinemas compete?

Cinema has faced a similar problem before. When television became widespread, it was feared that Cinema would lose out to programmed entertainment, that the “Movie of the Week” would provide a convenient substitute for a weekly trip to see a film at a movie theatre. The solution, which historically seems to have been proven to be effective, was to capitalize on all the difference between Cinema and television: make it bigger, bolder, and louder. Cinema audiences got to see more sex and violence, and the big screen and surround sound created a greater sense of immersion. Then along came DVDs, which revitalised the movie industry once more, and more recently, the world is rolling out the digital cinema experience.
The problem this time however, is that the digital cinema experience is almost identical to the regular cinema experience. All the benefits of digital cinema suit the distributors more than they suit the audience. The audience doesn’t care that the film can be watermarked, encrypted and transferred more easily. It certainly won’t make it any cheaper for them. Sure, they might enjoy the rock-steady, blemish-free picture, but the chances are they won’t even notice it- for most people, it will be like watching a DVD on a big screen in a dark room (and those that do notice it might also notice the inferior spatial and chromatic image quality compared to film). Ultimately then, what needs to happen is that it needs to widen the gap between the cinema experience and the home cinema experience.
In a somewhat low-key conference at IBC about the future of cinema, several possibilities were being thrown about, but the only one that carried any real weight or air of excitement was 3D. 3D cinema has been around for years, albeit in different forms. The latest incarnation aims to overcome many of the practical problems associated with projection, namely syncing two separate images together. The weave and bounce of film projectors, coupled with differences in the chemical development process have meant that projecting two strips of film side-by-side (which is the usual requirement of 3D projection) results in the images being slightly displaced from each other, to a varying degree. This can result in eyestrain for the viewer. With digital projection however, this is much less of a problem. Digital projection is steadier, and potentially more accurate in terms of timing the switch between each image. With two digital projectors, it’s possible to achieve a frame rate of over 140 frames per second, high enough to ensure the audience doesn’t notice the flicker.
In the conference, there was a demonstration of the latest 3D projection technology. You still have to wear glasses to see the 3D, and the glasses used in the demo used fast shutters synced to the projection– a system that would probably be too expensive for most theatres. Nevertheless, the experience was fairly smooth, although Thomson’s Dave Bancroft (amongst others) was quick to point out that the main problem with 3D features is that they are too in-your-face: “we cut to a scene where you have the, hello you’re watching in 3D, where part of the scene jumps out of the screen”, and this approach does indeed feel dated, not to mention tacky.
But what I kept thinking was, well it’s all well and good designing something to be shown in 3D, but until there’s a way to convert 2D pictures to 3D… Enter In-Three. The second part of the presentation consisted of demo work by the company In-Three, who have developed a system to take 2D images, and make them 3D, dubbed “dimensionalisation”. I can’t really explain how it looks verbally, but take my word for it, the results felt more natural and comfortable than the supposed “real 3D” footage. The speakers from In-Three offered several possibility as to why this might be. For example, the way it works is that the image presented to the left eye is always the original, unmodified image. The image presented to the right eye is the one which has been doctored. Also, because the right eye image begins as an exact duplicate of the left, there are no optical differences that would occur when shooting with two separate cameras simultaneously (I want to point out here that the brain is extremely sensitive to differences in the images received by both eyes, in fact, a way to “cheat” at “spot-the-difference” images is to view them stereoscopically). It’s also worth noting that scenes containing smoke look very smooth under In-Three’s process.
But the question remains, is 3D enough on its own to resuscitate the Cinema experience? Initially, it might be. A few decent films projected using a subtler form of 3D (or using In-Three’s process) might create enough of a reason for people to leave the comfort of their homes. Having said that, this would only work temporarily. In fact, it makes more sense to market 3D as a home cinema extension, because people could buy much more sophisticated (expensive) equipment for the home than the cinemas could afford to provide (such as stereoscopic goggles with LCD displays built-in). So, in the long-term, something else needs to be done if Cinema is going to survive another generation.
For those who are interested, my opinion is this. Going to the Cinema is an inherently social event. Many people go to the cinema in groups, as a way of going out somewhere and having something fun to do. Likewise people go to concerts and other live events for similar reasons. What’s interesting to me is that there is a tendency for people to go somewhere there is a large group for scheduled events. For example, in England, football (soccer…) matches are so popular that it is almost impossible to get tickets for the big events, such as the world cup (or the Superbowl in the US). Fortunately, they are normally broadcast on terrestrial TV, so anyone can watch them at home. But what actually happens is that everyone goes and watches the football in bars and pubs, so there is a sense of atmosphere. And these bars and pubs have fairly small, low-quality screens (particularly for the size of the audience). Imagine how many tickets large digital cinemas could have sold for providing coverage of these events…

Posted: September 20th, 2005
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