HPA 2015: Theaters Dabble in Lasers

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—There’s a reason buying a small popcorn and a soda in a movie theater breaks the bank.

“When it comes to technology, our members just spent $2 billion going digital,” said John Fithian of the National Association of Theater Owners. “We thought we’d be done, but now we’re looking at high-dynamic range, laser-illuminated projection and immersive sound…. We almost went broke doing digital cinema.”

Fithian spoke about the theater business at the Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat in Indian Wells this week. His organization has 630 members in 81 countries.

We look at the movies and the movie experience,” he said. “We can’t do anything about the movies… but can do something about the experience.”

That’s where technology comes in. Fithian said theaters used the same type of projection technology for nearly 100 years.

“Digital was the biggest transition in the history of the industry,” he said.

Movie makers now are experimenting with higher frame rates, but Fithian said theater-goers give it mixed reviews.

“The next ‘Avatar’ will be high frame rate, but personally, I don’t think it will go anywhere,” he said.

There is more interest in high dynamic range—which yields brighter images with more contrast and can result in bolder colors—and laser-illuminated projectors that render very high brightness on the screen. There are still legal issues, however, with laser-illuminated projectors he said.

“You have to get a government waiver to use lasers in cinema,” he said.

David Keighleyof IMAX said these very big-screen venues already implement high dynamic range, but it’s not boosting box office the way IMAX executives would like.

“We have to get Millennials into the theater,” he said. The question is how. Keighley said a lot of theaters aren’t putting enough light on the screen. The Digital Cinema Initiative recommends 14 foot lamberts of reflected light from the screen image.

“A lot of theaters don’t do as well as they should,” he said. “We can do a lot of improvement if we follow the specs we already have.”

IMAX screens run at 22 foot lamberts he said. A regular theater, if it happens to be running at 8 foot lamberts, would get just 2 foot lamberts for a 3D movie.

“And we’re competing today with a large screen TVs with 30 foot lamberts,” he said.

Todd Hoddick of Barco said that Cinemark runs every 3D movie at 6 foot lamberts minimum.

“Those kind of standards will be more impactful than high dynamic range,” he said.

Curt Behlmer of Dolby Laboratories disagreed. He said his company is just rolling out high-dynamic range projection. He called it “the most dramatic change we’ve seen in cinema,” even considering immersive sound, which Dolby offers as Atmos.

“High dynamic range is getting more attention from people who see it,” he said. “It is laser-based illumination in the case of our projector. It takes a lot of power, and it’s still a challenge to get bright, 3D images.”

Implementing technology in a theater environment is difficult as well, he said. Ambient lighting such as exit signs are a problem for laser projectors.

Fithian said there was a “huge variable in what’s being called ‘high dynamic range.’ I think we need to rally around what that means. Right now, what we’re seeing in high dynamic range is still some relatively experimental efforts.”

(Image is an iPhone shot of a demo of Christie’s laser-illuminated projector.)