There are pros and cons for anything, and the idea of releasing high frame rate content in digital cinemas is attracting its share of both. High frame rate content, with the right combination of artistry and hype, will have value with audiences, whether 2-D or 3-D. But the issues regarding equipment obsolescence are not trivial, and recognition of the magnitude of these issues is growing quickly. The result could shelve the wide release of high frame rate movies to cinemas for several years.
James Cameron has been busy pushing high frame 3-D at the trade shows. The demonstrations have improved from special servers and two projectors, to a single server and single projector with IMB. Mr. Cameron gave presentations this month at IBC in Amsterdam and Kino Expo in Saint-Petersburg. When Mr. Cameron stretches the truth with statements such as “all it takes is a software upgrade,” his tone becomes reminiscent of George Lucas, who pushed hard – unsuccessfully – for exhibitors to adopt 1.3K projectors preceding the release of Star Wars Episode II.
However, director support for high frame rates is a strength that cannot be ignored. It is what led 3-D into the cinema, just as it is the lack of director support that makes 4K cinema so humdrum. When it comes to content for high frame rate 3-D in the cinema, there is always the chance that directors such as Cameron and Jackson can bring to the high frame rate world what Avatar did for 3-D. But when it comes to projection equipment, a very different story exists than that which propelled the adoption of 3-D. Cinema owners have just spent a wad on converting to digital, of which too few projectors today can display high frame content. Only those projectors with capable internal media blocks can deliver. This rules out all Series 1 projectors, comprising close to 50% of US installations to date. As one examines the installation base, it may be that only 10% of US installations today are capable of playing high frame content without some degree of further investment.
The age-old question is “who will pay?” This is always the point that Mr. Cameron deftly avoids in his presentations. In the cinema industry, it only takes a select few to say “no” to stand Hollywood on its ear. There is reason to believe that this is happening in regards to high frame rates, driven by those providing much of the financing of the transition to digital cinema.
Kasima LLC is the finance arm of Digital Cinema Implementation Partners (DCIP), carrying some $600M in loans for digital cinema equipment installed in Regal, Cinemark, and AMC cinemas in the US. A corner piece of the financing scheme is a revolving credit structure of $220M. Anything that negatively impacts the quality rating of this credit structure will raise its interest rate, if not affect the willingness of some banks to lend. One of the very valuable roles played by the DCI specification is the guarantee of stability of digital cinema technology. As reported last month in this journal, any industry move to high frame rate 3-D will dilute the DCI specification. This is because DCI limits high frame rate support to 48fps at 2K. (3-D was not included in the DCI specification, but it was also not in conflict with the DCI specification due to the 48fps requirement.) Cameron’s high frame rate 3-D, for example, requires 120fps streams at 2K. That, in more ways than one, can break the bank, and require more cash from exhibitors. Exhibitors may be forced to upgrade their entire inventory if it’s perceived that the value of the equipment has excessively diminished. It would not be unreasonable for affected exhibitors to simply put their foot down and say “no” to high frame rates. Given that some of the largest exhibitors could find themselves in this position, that “no” could be quite powerful.
This scenario could be déj