At the time of this writing, the number of high frame rate (HFR)-ready screens in the world can be counted on two hands. When asked for “how many are ready,” manufacturers point to a few test sites for their products. With Hobbit to be released end of November, and we’re about to go into October with virtually no screens ready for a high frame rate movie, it seems that Warner’s decision to dilute the HFR release was fully justified simply on technical grounds. However, manufacturers are not happy with that decision, and may have their own say. The outcome could raise the bar for studios wishing to generate momentum for new technologies for years to come.
The process for introducing new movie technology into cinema may not be well understood. It’s important to note that without one standard being written, all manufacturers today claim to have products capable of up to 120 fps. Standards do not call for more than 48 fps. Similarly, without one standard being written, all manufacturers claim to have media blocks that decode compressed content up to 500 Mbits/sec. Standards only require support for de-compression bit rates up to 250 Mbits/sec.
It is movies that drive new technology in cinemas. If a studio is going to commit to over $100M for a new movie, and that movie requires something different than that commonly found in cinemas, you can bet that the studio will be speaking with every manufacturer for support. Similarly, the studio will be reaching out to exhibitors for support – long before the movie is to be released.
For the technology to be successful, the technology must generate new revenue, or at least bolster existing revenue. The success of 3-D is legendary, but it must be remembered that that success began when “Chicken Little” demonstrated that cinemas showing the 3-D version generated over 3 times the box office of the 2-D version. The release of “Avatar” cemented the value of 3-D in exhibition, as exhibitors not only foresaw the box office potential of the movie, but also the ability to increase ticket prices for the 3-D version.
High frame rate technology will benefit from the pending release of Peter Jackson’s movie, but the other much-needed factors aren’t nicely falling into place. The objections amplified by the press to the visual “look” of the movie, possibly exacerbated by HFR, should be well-known by now. Warner had several reasons for announcing that the HFR version would have a limited release, as if only an experiment. But the clincher is the announcement late August that cinemas are not expected to charge extra for the HFR version. Warner certainly isn’t giving exhibitors an incentive to upgrade.
In contrast, Warner has been soliciting manufacturers for over a year to get on the HFR bandwagon and bring upgraded products to market. Prior to Cameron’s HFR demonstration at CinemaCon in 2011, HFR wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. But with Warner’s encouragement, manufacturers changed course to accommodate this new twist. The implication all along is that the movie would generate demand, and they would need the feature to be competitive.
All of this has left manufacturers wondering why they spent a year of development and promotion for little return, if any. While some manufacturers looked forward to charging for upgrades as their means of reward, other manufacturers were planning to simply give it away to further build their relationships with customers.
It’s this second group that is the most interesting to consider. One manufacturer is planning to upgrade all of its systems in the field, regardless. There is substantial potential to move overnight from zero systems ready in the field to several thousand systems ready in the field. Warner may show reticence in making a splash with its HFR release, but a manufacturer-driven scenario could be a game changer. Exhibitors with such systems might then demand the HFR version from Warner. If Warner caves, then other manufacturers will be pressured to drop the price of upgrade, or simply follow suit and give it away.
At the time of writing, this is all speculation. But there is a message in this potential that not all manufacturers may be willing to act as a whipping post for directors who want to do something different. With over 80,000 digital systems now installed in the field, it may be time for manufacturers to push back, or push ahead, as the case may be.