NEW YORK, NY—James Cameron’s sci-fi adventure Avatar has been breaking box office records for months, causing Hollywood, theater chains and moviegoers alike to become increasingly excited about modern 3D movies. As the cinema world jumps headfirst into retrofitting thousands of screens to show 3D films, will cinema audio come along for the ride? Within the film industry, many see Avatar’s climb to the highestgrossing movie of all time not as an anomaly but as a portent of things to come; other films are being processed at the last minute for release in 3D, like the upcoming Clash of the Titans and the recent Alice In Wonderland, which had the sixth biggest opening weekend ever, largely due to being available in 3D.
Clearly there’s big money to be made with the format. DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg told CBS News that 3D adds 10 percent to the cost of a movie, but, “There isn’t anybody that has released a high-end 3D film that hasn’t more than made the return on their investment, in the movie theater alone.” As a result, all of his studios’ films will be in 3D from now on.
A key factor to modern 3D films, however, is that they all require digital projection systems, and that, in turn, has sparked a surge of interest in retrofitting theaters for digital technologies.
Case in point: In a deal eight years in the making, theater chains AMC Entertainment, Cinemark Holdings and Regal Entertainment Group announced in early March that they’d founded a joint venture called Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, which will upgrade roughly 14,000 movie screens to digital over the next few years, to the tune of $660 million. While that’s a huge undertaking, it’s only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 screens in the U.S. and 140,000 screens around the globe.
“What you’re seeing with the visual experience of 3D is that the exhibitors started looking at what we’d call ‘large-format sound systems,’” said Chuck Goodsell, director of marketing for cinema at Harman, where he handles JBL and Crown cinema lines. “The films are in the larger auditoriums with the big silver screens and the Barco and Christie digital projection systems; exhibitors are going for the bigger visual experience in 3D, so they’ve gone for the bigger sound experience, too.”
Much as there is a variety of digitalprojection systems being installed, there’s likewise a broad selection of high-end cinema audio systems for theaters to choose from with JBL, Electro-Voice and QSC Audio dominating the cinema loudspeaker market, although Meyer Sound entered the marketplace a year ago, too.
Key to keeping everyone on the same page, so that films can be presented digitally regardless of the gear in the projector booth, is the Digital Cinema Initiatives spec. Formed in 2002, DCI is a joint venture between the major motion picture studios, created to develop a standard, open architecture for digital cinema systems to ensure interoperability and compatibility.
“The DCI spec is 24-bit either 44k or 96k sampling, and up to 16 channels; that’s a significant improvement above what you used to get off 35 mm film,” said Steve Shurtz, cinema manager for the Meyer Sound Cinema Experience line. “It’s arguable whether the format was the weak link in the audio chain, but now there’s no question that we have a very high-quality format feeding theaters. The weak link now in terms of audio is usually the loudspeaker system, maybe the amplifiers and the room itself, so we’re at a point where we have real potential to take a step forward—and we need to, frankly.” Harman’s Goodsell sees that step happening and has his predictions on the next step, for that matter: “One of the things you’re going to see is 10.1 and 12.1 sound in cinemas; that’s the next big thing.”
The overall move to digital cinema has been a long time coming—after all, people have been able to digitally download movies for years, so why not the same for theaters? In the meantime, cinema audio systems have been developing in step with pro audio. To wit, in 2002, JBL received a Scientific/Technical Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its ScreenArray cinema loudspeaker systems. Since their debut in 2000, ScreenArrays have been widely adopted by both film exhibitors and studios. As Goodsell noted, “I do most of the studio post-production rooms in L.A., and Universal, Warner Brothers and Disney all use our ScreenArrays.”
The aim now, he added, is to get the top sound quality of a post-production stage into a theater: “We’ve developed an ultra-high power ScreenArray system for large-format cinemas, and I’ve installed several of these systems, using the Application Engineered Series from JBL for surrounds. We put them in the CineMark XD Extreme Digital rooms in the U.S., and another large-format cinema for Warner Brothers International Cinemas in Japan, which is a similar concept. Also, the Empire Leicester Square in London, where they did the World Premiere of Avatar—that has a JBL custom sound system in it.”
As it turns out, Avatar was at a different premiere of sorts during the first week of March, when Advanced Media Design Systems (Pensacola, FL) finished installing the second Meyer Sound Cinema Experience system in a U.S. commercial theater— The Breeze in Gulf Breeze, FL.
“Owners don’t like shutting down,” said Brian Smith of AMDS. “That meant we worked night shifts that wouldn’t impact the normal operations—which is selling tickets. You have to work around a screen that you can’t touch or bump into; they won’t take it down just so you can put up speakers. Both Meyer Cinema installs we’ve done took about 84 hours across two weeks, from equipment load-in to the last three days of tuning and alignment. We finished on March 4, and Alice In Wonderland in 3D opened on Friday, the next day, at 12:30 p.m.
“Thursday night, everything was perfect, so we put up Avatar. The owner had some time left on his contract to show it, so everyone who participated in the installation brought friends and family, we all got some popcorn and listened to it the way it was meant to be heard!”
Advanced Media Design Systems