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HPA 2017: The Big Screen Resurges

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—People are watching YouTube videos on TV, the Super Bowl online, and movies where you’d never guess—in theaters. Day No. 2 of the HPA Tech Retreat was an overview of what’s new, what’s old and what��s new again in the way of media content creation and distribution.

“All our money is going to recliner seating, because the ROI is great. It’s the best thing that’s been invented in my career,” said Neil Campbell of Landmark Cinemas Canada, the second largest theater chain in that country with 333 screens.

Campbell talked about being in an industry that’s been “going out of business forever,” yet domestic box office actually increased 2 percent last year and slightly fewer tickets than in 2015, in part because theaters are installing recliners. That, and there were new releases all 12 months of the year, Campbell said. “People will come out for a good movie.”

Reserved seating is another boost for the picture-show people. Folks can attend in larger groups and be assured of sitting together. Adult beverages are another plus. Theaters increasingly are serving alcohol. Other factors—advanced audio, for example; Landmark’s minimum is 7.1 Then there’s product.

“I need a new film every Friday; two new films every Friday,” Campbell said. “No one can guarantee quality, but if you have enough quantity, quality’s going to be in there.”

The resurgence is also due in part to the butterfly effect of digital cinema technology. No more delivery of films in cans. Theaters can now offer live content. Campbell called the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD cinemacasts “the biggest chunk of gold we’ve found out there.”

With regard to 3D, Campbell said it “has to earn it’s weekly hole, because the 2D will outperform again and again.” He raved about virtual reality content, but said it was too “labor intensive right now for what we’re doing.” He said the best venue for it appears to be a booth.

And finally—customer service—is bringing folks into theaters. At Landmark concession stands across Canada, staff members are instructed to swap out the Milk Duds for Dots in the No. 2 combo if that’s what a customer wants. Another aspect of customer service is knowing what will get them to plunk down $8.65 for a ticket. In the case of seniors, the fastest growing theater demo, “Straight Outta Compton.”

Disney’s Leon Silverman
also addressed the changes in the theater industry, driven in part by competition from home cinema. Silverman said 3D is making a bit of a comeback with the use of laser projectors, which amp up the brightness. He talked about the necessity of having consistent production metrics for things like high dynamic range, perhaps measured in “Jobloves,” a nod to last year’s Tech Retreat presentation by George Joblove, who suggested scaling HDR from a gray point.

Same with color versioning, Silverman said.

“We need to have more predictable color pipelines in Hollywood, like the ACES effort,” and more consistent color across a variety of displays, he said, referring to the Academy Color Encoding System launched in 2015.

In an afternoon panel discussion on new content models, Renard Jenkins of PBS said 4Kis the new tote bag. He said the network is now shooting most of its content in 4Kand developing a delivery spec for contributors, to offer it to donors as a “thank you” gift, of sorts.

“PBS has ‘Passport,’” which offers earlier debut times, for example, he said. “Right now, we can’t send 4K over the air, but we can send it via streaming and offer it to ‘Passport’ donors. It’s sort of the new version of us giving you that mug, or that tote bag.

Albert Lai of online video hoster Brightcove said there is still market uncertainty about 4K.

In the last 18 to 24 months, 4K’s been something folks want to talk about, but no one’s demanded it. Right now, it’s just added cost with no assurance of ROI,” he said. Add that to potential technical problems—Will it cause buffering issues? Will it cause problems with devices? Will it delivery quality of experience?

“Not just 4K, but higher frame rate, wider color gamut.
How can you deliver those in a cost-effective manner?
Our intent is to deliver content for our customers in a cost-effective way,” he said.

Curt Marvis of QYOU said 4K comprised is the third most requested content genre on his company’s platform. QYOU “curates the best of YouTube,” licenses the content from he creators, and packages it in a “variety of forms,” he said. That includes a 24/7 network called “Q-You,” as well as TBD, a network QYOU launched with Sinclair Broadcast that went live last week.

The No. 1 genre we get asked for is sports programming, then kids, then 4K,” he said, and 4K’s no cake walk to deliver.

“After you receive that content in 4K, that’s where it breaks down for us,” he said. “To keep it natively in 4K, the problems that come up with shipping and editing—without moving it in a moving van on a hard drive.

“I’d almost say it’s like a marketing thing. There’s this quest for 4K. I’m not sure what’s driving up, but the distribution system doesn’t seem to be set up yet.”

Adventures in distribution are something Devin Poole of Fox Sports knows a thing or two about. He and his team were responsible for the most-streamed live event ever—Super Bowl LI.

The streaming Super Bowl audience is on the rise, he noted, growing 350,000 for NBC in 2012, to 1.4 million for CBS in 2016, and 1.72 million for Fox earlier this month. Along with the sunshine, there’s going to be a few distributed denial of service attacks sometimes.

For the 2014 Super Bowl, for example, more than 10 percent of traffic was related to DDOS attacks, from multiple sources with multiple targets, Poole said. Fox Sports added a third content delivery network this year just in case, to provide additional fallback and to better handle scale.

That didn’t prevent a seven-minute outage due to an encoder software bug. Something involving convergence of PTS rollover and manual ad logging. Poole said 2 million-plus playback requests were handled on resumption. Imagine all those people clicking “refresh” on their browsers, he said.

Overall, however, the failure rate in digital ad insertion was less than one percent, and over all buffering was right around 1 percent.