From 3D to VR: The future of cinema

Hungry for new revenue and differentiation opportunities, theatre owners are exploring everything from videoconferencing to immersive lobbies. Tim Kridel looks at how that affects their need for new AV systems.

Going to the movies isn’t what it used to be. Sure, patrons still wind up in a dark room with dozens of strangers, but increasingly there are motion seats that match the on-screen action and the option of having food and drink waitered in. And in the lobby, the box office often now shares space with bowling alleys and restaurants.

“A trend that is starting to gain traction is the multi-use lobby area: designed as an entertainment space instead of just concessions and box office,” says Adil Zerouali, an EMEA director for Christie’s cinema services unit. “When theatre owners are faced with renovations, they are definitely considering renovations that would potentially monetise multiple areas of the theatre. These include dine-in restaurants, pub and arcades.”

Those lobbies are no longer filled only in the evenings and on weekends. Increasingly people are showing up on weekday mornings and afternoons, too – not to skip work for the first showing of a blockbuster, but rather for videoconferences and all-hands meetings.

They’re all examples of how theatre owners are looking for new ways to wring more revenue out of their facilities and compete with home cinemas equipped with 3D and 4K displays. Those initiatives create opportunities for AV integrators and vendors – and not just those that specialise in cinema systems.

For instance, immersive audio is increasingly expanding out of theatres and into the lobbies.

“A lot of manufacturers – Barco, for example – are looking at creating immersive environments in the lobby, as well,” says David Hancock, director and head of film and cinema at the research firm IHS Technology. “There’s a general trend toward making the customer feel far more immersed in the experience.”

But success means understanding where cinema-specific skills are and aren’t required.

“The technologies have converged in pro AV and cinema – for sure,” says Mark Mayfield, QSC director of global cinema marketing. “But the markets are not converged yet. We have specialised dealers who understand the specific needs inside theatres.

“I wouldn’t encourage a regular systems integrator to attempt that. And vice-versa: The theatre installer might not have expertise on digital signage. They need to work together.”

Higher frame rates and resolutions

One waning trend is the migration away from film and toward digital projection, an overhaul that began about a decade ago. Today, 98.2% of world’s cinemas are digital, Hancock says.

This trend is still noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One is that it illustrates the interplay between the cinema ecosystem’s players, including theatre owners, technology vendors, studios and household-name directors. Understanding the role that each plays is key for understanding theatre owners’ appetite and budget for each new technology; whether it’s immersive audio, digital signage or augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR).

For instance, in the early 1980s, many theatre owners upgraded their sound systems to THX for fear that not doing so would mean they wouldn’t get to show the next “Star Wars” film. Today, many major directors such as James Cameron and Peter Jackson wield comparable influence.

“Paradigm shifts have historically been driven by creatives (directors) and enabled by the studios.” 

“Paradigm shifts have historically been driven by creatives (directors) and enabled by the studios,” says Tom Bert, Barco senior product manager. “For example, when ‘The Hobbit’ was released, many exhibitors had to upgrade their equipment to support the higher frame rates (HFR): 48 fps. The release of ‘Avatar’ in 2009 was a big driver for 3D adoption.”

Ang Lee’s upcoming “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was shot in 120 fps, raising a bar that’s already tripped up a few directors and films.

“It’s never been done before – and there aren’t any cinemas that can play it,” says Hancock, adding that there could be a few by the time it debuts. “‘The Hobbit’ didn’t work that well. It put people off of HFR for a bit.”

Theatre owners also are weighing the business case for 4K.

“We find that 4K isn't required until the screen becomes very large,” says Mike Bradbury, group head of cinema technology at Odeon, which owns 243 European theatres. “This would obviously mean the pixels would get larger and the definition would drop, so when we install screens over 15m, we now install 4K.

“The main benefit comes when the content is mastered in 4K rather than played back in 4K. 4K mastered images look superb projected on a 2K projector, so it's mostly the source material that is the key factor.”

Laser projection is an example of how some new technologies have multiple business drivers. Besides the increased brightness that makes the 3D viewing experience better, laser uses significantly less electricity than lamps, and its light source doesn’t have to be replaced as often. Barco says its laser projector runs up to 30,000 hours before brightness starts to drop by 20%, whereas lamps need to be replaced every 500 to 3,000 hours.

There are also relevant trends outside theatres. A prime example is the increasing popularity and sophistication of home theatres. In theory, they should be siphoning off a lot of ticket sales and – more importantly for theatre owners, concession revenue – as consumers find it cheaper to stay home. That could help or hurt pro AV because theatre owners could either have less to spend or step up spending in order to lure patrons with experiences they can’t get at home.

But Hancock is among those who argue that home theatres are a red herring, with negligible financial impact so far. Like cord cutting in the pay-TV world, it’s generating more buzz than actual market disruption. There’s another parallel: Most TV networks are reluctant to go directly to consumers on an à la carte basis partly for fear of upsetting the cable and satellite operators that bring in the vast majority of their customers and revenue. In the cinema world, studios have similar concerns about upsetting exhibitors by changing the “theatrical window” so that films would debut on pay-per-view TV around the same time they hit theatres.

“I can’t see that much movement on the theatrical window at the moment,” Hancock says.

Immersive market opportunities

Man wearing VR goggles with virtual city concept background

Theatre owners and studios are also slowly expanding their use of immersive audio.

“They’re not mixing every film in those formats yet,” says QSC’s Mayfield. “It’s really a small percentage. I think less than 2% of the world’s theatres are equipped for immersive right now.”

Cost is a major reason.

“To invest in immersive audio in a theatre is sometimes 10 times the cost of equipping it for standard 5.1 or 7.1,” Mayfield says. “So for suppliers like QSC, it’s been a major increase in our sales over the past couple of years and will be for a couple more at least.”

Theatre owners also want to see studios mix more films in immersive formats before investing heavily in the technology.

“It can be a little frustrating when we go to great expense to install 3D spatial immersive sound systems in our cinemas, and then we have to show a film that hasn't been mixed in that format,” Bradbury says. “Fortunately it is getting rapidly better as more and more films are mixed this way. That said, a normal 5.1 or 7.1 mix does sound stunning when played through an immersive system like Dolby Atmos.” 

Some theatre owners see a solid business case in immersive audio.

“We see/hear a huge benefit,” Bradbury says. “We are increasingly installing this in our new cinemas.”

The outlook for immersive video is less clear. With VR, one challenge is the headsets: Like their 3D predecessors, VR headsets have upfront and ongoing costs, such as cleaning. And unlike 3D, VR doesn’t just enhance the viewing experience; it fundamentally changes it. That means directors and studios have to figure out how to use VR’s unique storytelling capabilities. This learning process takes time, which also is time for VR technology to start riding down the cost curve.

“It’s not that widely accepted yet that VR has a place in cinema. I think it can [have one].”

“There are now two VR cinemas in the world: Amsterdam and, I think, Paris,” says IHS’s Hancock. “It’s not that widely accepted yet that VR has a place in cinema. I think it can [have one].”

AR appears to have a stronger business model in the short term.

“AR potentially has a strong role to play in cinema lobby displays with consumer mobile devices and things like interactive display walls,” Zerouali says. “Others are making the headsets. Content that leverages AR/VR will come from a variety of sources, including studios, businesses, governments and cinema-industry tech players, such as Christie.”

Fancy popcorn with your meeting?

Odeon is among a growing number of theatre owners that rent out their facilities for non-film uses, such as business meetings. That trend creates retrofit opportunities for AV firms because many of those applications have requirements and standards that don’t align with those of the cinema world.

For example, films are mixed using equalisation standards that don’t exist in videoconferencing. So to target non-film applications such as meetings and concerts, cinema processors and loudspeakers need to be flexible.

“It’s very important to our business right now from a signal processing standpoint,” says QSC’s Mayfield. “The biggest difference is localisation of the image to the sound.

“Films are mixed so there’s a left, centre and right channel behind the screen because it roughly corresponds to the big picture that’s going on. In a videoconference, you might want more speakers behind there so you can localise each individual loudspeaker to a big room that’s being projected on the screen.”

Some theatre owners say they don’t need to make major, expensive changes to target the enterprise market.

“For live shows and corporate events, we don't need special projectors, as we can plug pretty much anything into our digital projectors and get full resolution,” Bradbury says. “Sometimes we may need a scaler to resize some resolutions, but this isn't that common anymore given that most people do everything in HD.

“Sound can usually be fed through our sound systems by inputting into the auxiliary inputs and can easily get 5.1 if needed, but most presentations are 2.0 stereo. To avoid feedback from the screen speakers, we usually hire in mic speakers or route the sound through the surround speakers only.”

Some theatres are importing products that are widely used in offices, such as wireless presentation systems.

“The most practical problems come from things like connecting the laptop of a presenter in the front of the auditorium to the projection booth in the rear,” says Barco’s Bert. “AV products like Clickshare are being used in cinemas to solve these types of problems.”

But for all of the focus on work, theatres will remain a place for play, too.

“In Europe – particularly Germany – we're seeing an increasing number of guests renting screens for private use so they can plug in their Xbox One or PS4 for an awesome multiplayer session,” Bradbury says. “We think this and other uses for cinemas will expand in the next few years as people realise everything that we can do.”

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