Coming to a theater near you: Bigger Screens More Pixels!

The International Broadcast show covers absolutely every aspect of broadcast including small screens, mobile screens, big screens, and real real big screens. Last year there was plenty of talk about the end of stereographic 3D. This year is all about its rebirth thanks in part to the arrival of new formats for movie theaters. Beyond 3D, theaters are not only bigger, they're brighter, audio is immersive, and the seats are comfy.

Kathleen Maher
Wretched Excess: Sony’s 6K x 3K Crystal LED display at IBC 2019 is a contender for new large format movie theaters. It’s beautiful, and almost hard to imagine in a movie theater. Can a screen be too bright? (Source: JPR)

Audiences in North America might have to do a little traveling to see Gemini Man in 3D at 120 fps, but the message at IBC is that a wealth of new technology for movie theaters is being readied in the wings. Christie, which showed its Laser Projection system in 2014 at NAB and CinemaCon, has important wins with Dolby Cinema and in the Huaxia system, there’s new competition coming along this year.

At IBC, the proponents of several premium large format (PLF) approaches made their cases.  some advances on established format, others are new.

Dolby is the one to beat

At IBC, the Big Screen auditorium is a showcase for the latest projection systems and for new cinematic techniques. IBC’s official screening for attendees was The Lion King in Dolby Vision with Atmos sound, which adds up to Dolby Cinema. The IBC theater is equipped with dual Christie laser projectors.

The filmmakers talked about their film as being “live action,” but hyper-real is a better description. The images are brilliant, sharp, and clear—almost to a fault.

It’s not necessarily a problem that an animated fantasy film like The Lion King has an unnatural clarity, but at times all the visual and audio detail got in the way of the story telling, which I know is a strange thing to say, but there are moments: when, what? What happened? I missed something because I was off admiring leaves.

There could be a problem for directors and editors to figure out somewhere along the line—much like the challenge of VR story telling. Directors will have to do more work to direct the gaze of the audience, or to play with misdirection when they’re working in large formats. For the near future, I suspect we’ll be in a period of wretched excess and will wallow in sensory overload. There are worse fates.

Dolby hasn’t really talked too much about frame rates, but we’re expecting to hear more if the 3D, 4K, 120 fps Gemini Man is a success (or even at 60 fps).

THX takes on theaters

THX, which was founded by George Lucas as a way to standardized audio, so he could be assured that his movies had certified sound systems. The company has changed hands and grown. It was acquired by Razer in 2016. THX has entered the PLF fray through a partnership with Cinionic, a joint venture that includes Barco, CGS, and ALPD. It’s built around a dual-Barco laser projection system that delivers 4K resolution. THX calls its system THX Ultimate and the first theater is the iconic Regency Westwood Village Theater, which debuted the new system in the Spring of 2019. The theater, long known as the Fox theater in Westwood, has a cameo in Quinton Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There is irony here, Tarantino famously captures his movies on celluloid. OUTH was shot in 35 mm by Cinematographer Robert Richardson.

Tarantino and Richardson decided to shoot in 35 mm rather than 70 mm because he wanted to use zooms, which would work against 70 mm. It was released in 35 mm, 70 mm, standard digital, and Dolby Vision. The movie, a very good movie, lives as a bridge from traditional filmmaking to the digital age. Cinematographer Richardson, says it’s hard now to get film stock and to process the film the way they want, and he acknowledges the time is coming when it becomes impossible, or certainly impractical. However, Tarantino’s conundrum around 35 mm versus 70 mm is likely to translate to a similar challenge for directors working in large formats. Are large formats good for all movies? More likely movies will be made in different ways and some approaches will probably go by the wayside.

There will always be a case to be made for big. In the case of the THX system, there is a great deal of emphasis on the sound system as befits experts in audio. The Westwood Village theater’s audio system was upgraded to increase the low-frequency power to reduce distortion and increase the power of the sound. Curtains were added for the immersive multi-dimensional sound system. As a THX certified theater, the total environment is part of the system including the theater, seats, carpeting, wall covering, ceiling, fixtures, etc. Everything is considered in the context of the audio system. 

Samsung’s Onyx screen is billed as the largest DCI compliant theater display

Samsung’s big screen uses LEDs

IBC attendees were buzzing about Samsung’s new Onyx Cinema, an LED display that was first shown at the Las Vegas CinemaCon in 2018. The technology is making progress. In April, the company announced three new installations, two in the US and one in Israel. The US theaters include the 46-feet wide screen theater at the Star Cinema Grill in Houston and the 33.5-feet wide screen theater at the HighRock Group’s Warehouse Cinema in Frederick, Maryland. The Warehouse Cinema has its own patent pending tilt technology called SkyVUE, which fine tunes the viewing experience through its use of angles and perspective. It uses elevated, tilted screens for comfortable viewing angles.

The Samsung LED 4K movie screens are available in 16.7-feet, 33.5-feet and 46.2-feet screen widths. As might be obvious, Samsung’s branding, Onyx, calls attention to the ability of LEDs to delivery deep blacks. Samsung has been in the LED sign business for many years, and it quotes IHS data that says Samsung has 25.8% of the global market share for digital signage unit sales. Clearly, theaters are the next frontier for Samsung.

The Onyx Cinema LED display has been installed in 34 theaters.

Sony Digital Cinema opts for laser to launch

The Sony Digital Cinema is based in a 4K laser projection system with support for 4K and HDR. It will have Dolby Atmos sound and reclining seats. According to early news reports from IHS Markit, theaters wishing to go big with Sony can expect to pay a million bucks but since the cost of other systems is not widely available and Sony isn’t interested in confirming that number, for all we know that’s a heck of a deal. I just hope Jon doesn’t want one.

Sony’s first theater opened in Las Vegas at the Boulevard Mall in the Spring of 2019. Sony says they are planning their first theaters in the US. The first launch of Sony Digital Cinema will use Sony digital laser projectors, but LEDs could be in the cards. We did stumble across a very large LED screen in the back of some dark hall at IBC. It was just there, with very little fanfare and so mushed up against exhibits it was hard to step back and get a look at the thing. Sony’s Crystal LED display system is available as an 8K × 4K display that’s 32-feet wide and 18-feet high made of 288 units. The contrast ratio is, ahem, 1,000,000:1 and has a 99% black surface area.

Sony Digital Cinema theaters will show standard digital films but in an article in the Hollywood Reporter Bob Raposo who heads Sony’s theater business said they are looking at different versions of theater sizes and configurations in much the way IMAX and Dolby Cinema do now,  and they will likewise define their own specs for movie formats. Raposo observed that Sony is in a better position than most to dictate movie delivery standards since it owns capture, workflow, post production, film production distribution, and now theaters.

According to IHS Markit, PLF screens reached a total of 3,372 worldwide in 2018. IMAX leads with 64.8%, other brands include CGS in China, Dolby Cinema, which had 190 worldwide in 2018).

What do we think?

Absolutely can not wait. However, this does make life hard for cinema owners and filmmakers. Theaters are not necessarily making a lot of money now. Many were probably challenged by the push for 3D, which did not materialize. Will larger screens, better sound systems, faster frame rates make a difference? Maybe, if the movies are worth it. There was an assumption that audiences would pay extra to see tractor pulls if they were made in 3D. Audiences said different. At least we have Gemini Man, and someday Avatar to look forward to.