From the onset of the movement to digitally distribute motion picture, the natural migration of technology has been to merge cinema with home entertainment. Movies may first release to cinemas, but downstream distribution is targeted to home entertainment. For reason of efficiency, it’s desirable to merge technologies where possible. In this process, one format must emerge as the leader, against which all others follow. Historically, it has been cinema that leads. In 2014, a fork in the road emerged that may now cause these two paths to split.
It’s no secret that many directors prefer film to digital. For them, it’s not about efficiency, but about the quality of the image captured. When digital cinema standards were being defined, there was considerable push for a pixel count greater than HD, resulting in the cinema 2K and 4K formats. It’s doubtful, though, that consumers go to cinemas thinking that this is the only way to see that extra 6% of image. The early beneficial effect of technology differentiation was a means for production toolmakers to differentiate their wares as cinema tools versus mere ordinary tools for home entertainment productions. However, this is a benefit with a short horizon. The technical differentiation between cinema and home formats is extending beyond pixel count and into dynamic range, frame rate, and color space. Manufacturers are eager to sell new technologies to consumers, as we should expect to see at the upcoming CES in Las Vegas. Hollywood studios are onboard, converting content to higher dynamic range, with the hope of revitalizing Blu-Ray sales. Without doubt, the technology coming soon to home entertainment systems will far exceed that of the cinema.
Exhibitors are moving in the right direction when upgrading their cinemas for comfort and convenience, improvements that audiences immediately recognize and appreciate. But there remains this fork in the road over technology that will one day have to be addressed if the creative community is to remain engaged. The present generation of filmmakers is fascinated with new digital production tools and techniques, even if some of them still yearn for the quality of film. The upcoming generation of filmmakers will have no connection with film whatsoever. As home entertainment provides an outlet for new types of productions made possible by new tools and techniques, these same productions may have to be toned down for the cinema version. This isn’t too big of a problem if cinema remains the venue of first release, but this could also change.
There is an emotional bond between the filmmaker, cinematographer, and the exhibition venue. Audiences may not appreciate the extra 6% of image that digital cinema formats offer over home entertainment, but filmmakers appreciate the high-end experience offered by the large screen. If home entertainment becomes the venue of choice for high dynamic range imagery, for example, then the bond with filmmakers could begin to erode. And with it will come the downfall of cinema.
It may sound contrary to say this, but a divorce is needed between home entertainment and cinema technologies. It is not possible for cinema to keep up. The investment required to keep pace with the rate of change of technology is too great for the industry to bear. But while the cinema industry may not need to deploy the latest and greatest technologies, it does need to be careful about nurturing its bond with filmmakers.
There is no central command at play: both filmmakers and exhibitors are led by the nose by technology companies. Technology companies innovate, filmmakers experiment, and exhibitors are stuck with the bill. To a certain extent, the system works. But in 2015, the fork in the road dividing home entertainment and cinema will become more visible. The exhibition industry may have to restrain its investment in projection technologies, but it would benefit by investing in closer ties with the creative community. Washington DC is not the only place where lobbying is needed. Hollywood is calling, too.