The Future of the Theatrical Experience

Before introducing the "Cinerama Futurama: The Future of the Theatrical Experience" panel, Jeffrey Winters revealed how forward thinking the Festival is, "Here at Sundance we like to imagine what films will look like in 50 years, to allow ourselves to just imagine what the possibilities are." Winters then ended on an all too true observation of most film/tech-centric panels, "the conversation will probably go to money, but the answer we want is what will this future look like?" The following are some answers offered by the panel:

State of the Current Theatrical Platform

John Fithian (president, National Association of Theatre Owners): There's good news and bad news. The good news: even with the onset of multiple ways in watching movies through PS3, Xbox or Tivo, the theatrical business is on the uptick. $10.6 billion made in domestically in 2009, up 10% from 2008. Yes ticket prices have gone up, but over the last four decades, ticket prices have gone up slower then actual inflation. The bad news: the viability of indie film in theatres. I'm passionate about films, but most owners will only play things that sell. As we are expanding technology and reducing costs to make it easier for indie films, the blockbusters are capitalizing on this and dominating. It's a paradox that doesnt make me feel good about our business.

Oren Jacob (chief technical officer, Pixar Animation Studios): At Pixar we construct the pixel of every image and create the whole cloth ourself. Every part of every aspect of what we produce is crafted by us. So seeing our movies on celluloid films is kind of disappointing. It's low contrast, sometimes dim and with scratches. It's the one aspect we can't craft. We can create better imagery, but the current exhibition platform doesn't support that.

The Communal Experience

David Taylor (head of performing arts for Arup Acoustics): I saw a film last night that garnered an audible gasp from the audience at the 2 hour, 38 minute mark. Communal experiences like those you can't replace.

Jacob: I love the communal aspect, it kicks ass. I choose to go out to movies with my family because of that: experiencing the same story together.

Fithian: My passion is the communal experience. To get people away from their homes and electronics to watch a film in a theatre for a couple hours. As human beings we are communal, we have become couch potatos in way too many ways. Our job is to make the theatrical experience as magical as possible.


Howard Postley (chief technical officer, 3ality Digital): When we made U2 3D it was thought of entirely as a theatre product, but in the last two years that has changed. With 3D equipped TVs coming out now the home has become a significant place for watching 3D content. In regards to the theatre experience a lof of the environments still need to be fleshed out for 3D. When we showed a live football game in 3D the audience moved where they were sitting because they got annoyed by the football appearing to come at them. Some in the audience even tried to duck. For people who saw U2 3D in theatres they expected to see a film of the concert, but with the 3D enhancements felt like they saw a live concert that happened to be in a theatre. They couldn't dance there was no beer, etc. It was not the best environment to watch a concert film. We actually tried some 3D projection in rooms with no seats. People loved it, they could walk around, get drinks, talk to each other. It created a completely different experience for the audience. The media is evolving as the spaces are evolving to be more social and more interactive. It's interesting how the content and the space play off one another. We have a general term for spaces like that: immersaplex.

Fithian: Out of the 39,000 theatres in the U.S., 7,000 have digital projection and 3,500 have 3D. To me, 3D is the killer app. "Avatar" will become the biggest film of all time because of the 3D experience and the technology. I really don't know what we can do beyond 3D that will enhance the theatre experience. We're willing to try anything that gets butts in seats.

At Home

Fithian: The only part of the film business that thrives is theatrical. The thought that the increased ways of watching movies at home is cannibalizing the theatre business is wrong. Actually, it's having the reverse effect. The more ways people have to watch movies the more they'll go to the theatre. The more media that's accessible fuels their appetite.

Jacob: There was a 80% drop in DVD sales from "Finding Nemo" to "UP." As a content creator/filmmaker that scares me.

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