In depth - The good old movie theater is ready for a big step into the future. We haven't seen dramatic innovations in years and even if high-definition is on its way and some believe that theaters can be transformed into classy dining places, people always have been attracted to a special movie experience they can't get at home. TG Daily recently met with Dolby to find out how the much anticipated transition to 3D is coming along - and found that this technology has all the potential to keep movie theaters from becoming entertainment dinosaurs nobody will remember.
Now, to be clear, we don't think the movie theater is going away. There is still reason to go to your local theater for a nice evening out with your spouse or to spend some time with friends. Some years ago, technology firms pushed the idea of dropping the visit to a cinema in exchange for a movie that would download from the Internet and watch with your family and friends on a sofa in front of a big screen TV. Intel was a big promoter of this idea, especially when it announced its ClickStar movie joint venture with Oscar winning actor Morgan Freeman. Clickstar appears to be history and despite recent financial turmoil in the movie theater industry, there are plenty of ideas to add value to your average movie theater visit.
Muvico, for example, operates 14 "luxury" theaters around the country, which (for about $15 per ticket) offer "VIP" features such as loveseats and complimentary popcorn, as well as an upscale restaurant within the theater. Yesterday, we learned that a new group believes that you will spend up to $35 for a movie ticket, if there is a special experience such as smaller rooms with only 40 comfortable chairs involved.
But what about movie technology? We recently heard about Sony's 8.8 megapixel projectors, but for this article we were actually interested in the status of generally available 3D. Jeff McNall, Cinema Product Manager at Dolby Laboratories and Joshua Gershman, Dolby's PR head, were nice enough to give us an update on the company's Dolby 3D Digital Cinema technology.
When this product was announced at NAB 2007 in Las Vegas, Dolby claimed that it will reignite the theater experience with a new take on the 3D movie experience that we've known for decades. Marketing phrases aside, unlike many previous attempts to relive golden age of 3D, it seems that Dolby 3D actually has a chance for broad mass market adoption: Within one year, more than 70 cinemas in 30 countries were equipped with Dolby 3D. This number is expected to climb above 100 shortly.
Beowulf 3D was the first major title that hit the cinemas taking advantage of this technology. As it turned out, multiplexes that showed both the 2D and 3D version said that viewers of the 3D version brought in 40% of revenue, even though this movie was shown in only 25% of the screens. Read: Every showing was sold out or almost sold out. So, there is clearly some excitement behind a 3D version when compared to the regular 2D movie.
U2 3D, described as the first 3D concert movie, has been in theaters for almost two months now with ho apparent downturn in popularity. And then there was a slight controversy with Disney's 3D version of a Hannah Montana concert - which was originally planned to remain in theaters for only one week, but had to be quietly expanded by another week due to high demand. To us, it looks like Disney is already run by Steve Jobs.
The technology and cost
If you look at the technology, Dolby 3D Digital Cinema is somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 to bring a complete 3D experience technology into theaters. This number includes a required camera systems as well as a large number of expensive viewing glasses. After the conversion is done, you have a 2D/3D cinema, with the ability to show both standard and 3D movies back to back. Theaters are not required to change the screen, which has been the culprit in all of the previous 3D attempts, especially those that required silver-coated screens.
The playback technology of these 2D/3D movies has been developed by Dolby and Infitech, a company that was spun-off by German corporation Daimler AG. Its secret is based on a six-color disc with a diameter similar to those of CD/DVD/BD media. The disc spins at 144 Hz, with three colors targeting the left eye and three colors targeting the right eye. As a result, the disc ("color wheel") creates a stereoscopic 3D image on the screen. However, in the case of a 2D movie, disc rests couple of inches above the lens opening, which means that system will not interfere with regular 2D recordings.
What you get in the end is a complete 3D movie, whether it is natively filmed in 3D or simply adjusted for this technology. Gone are those 20 minute 3D clips, which often required movie goers to play around with glasses and wait for appearance of "green goggles" and "red goggles" at the bottom of the screen.
A big part of the movie experience is comfort and convenience. The downside 3D screenings always have been cheap, heavy glasses that are just a bad fit for the average nose. Dolby said that it studied the shapes and forms of faces in order to create much better eyewear. The result shows a special curving on the sides of the glasses. Regardless of what nose has been given to you, the Dolby3D glasses should fit nicely, we are told. The frame is designed to completely cover your vision area and offer protection of lenses from any backlight (such as exit signs, or someone going to the bathroom and opening the entrance door).
The lenses of these glasses are a different ballgame. Unlike el cheapo plastics or see-through paper, these lenses have more layers of coating than almost any sunglasses on the market. Dolby used 50 layers of coating and applied a special curvature of the lens, in order to increase durability and achieve a decent 3D effect. Dolby says the lenses are scratch-proof.
Due to the complex construction the 3D glasses cost around $50 to manufacture, so they clearly are not your regular 3D paper glasses. Because of the high price, Dolby implemented a security feature on the left side of the lens, so visitors who would like to have a "permanent" memory of their visit to the movie theater might find themselves surprised when an alarm rings at the exit (just like in your everyday shopping mall). Dolby, however, said that it can cut the price of the glasses in half over time.
All of the technologies mentioned above would be nothing else but a bunch of letters on your screen, if there wasn't a memorable 3D effect. Dolby showed us trailers for Star Wars IV: A New Hope, U2 3D and Fly me to the Moon. Watching Star Wars was especially impressive. The movie looked like it has a lot of depth, with external shots showing a lot of depth without the blurriness in the background. Scenes filmed in rooms looked nice: We did not experience the usual popping-out-of-the-screen effect, but rather received a feeling of the cinema screen being the entrance into a room where the action is happening.
Will Dolby 3D Digital Cinema prove to be more than just a gimmick for one or two years? Even though it is really hard to predict, it is our belief that 3D will take off in a discrete way. The movie lineup for next couple years looks really solid, with Star Wars, Journey 3D, Transformers 2, Ice Age: The Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Final Destination 4, Toy Story 2 & 3, Shrek 4 and about a dozen or two more titles. The lineup is dominated by animated movies, since we all know the concept of attracting kids to the cinema. But obviously, for a dramatic effect, Dolby needs flight, space, diving and sports documentaries.