New format may not play in all cities; later installments may go wider

Warner Bros. is convinced that high-frame-rate movies are the next big thing — but they’re keeping the first HFR release fairly small.

According to source familiar with Warner’s release plans for Peter Jackson’s first “Hobbit,” the HFR version will go out to only select locations, perhaps not even into all major cities.

People who have seen much of the film in 48 frames-per-second 3D tell Variety the picture now looks vastly better than the test footage shown this April at CinemaCon, which had not yet undergone post-production polishing and got a mixed reception from exhibitors.

But the studio still wants to protect the format by going into a limited release for the HFR version, hoping to test the marketplace and expand the HFR release for the second and third installments — provided auds are enthusiastic. As of now, there are still no theaters ready for HFR projection, though some require only a software upgrade that will be ready in September. Warners is satisfied with the pace of efforts to ready theaters for HFR.

Since Jackson is capturing at 48 frames per second, it actually requires some expense to down-convert it to 24, the frame rate at which most theaters will play it. Filmmakers can’t simply drop every other frame; they must add motion blur or the picture looks choppy.

Among vendors of projection gear, there seems to be little doubt that HFR is the future.

“It’s going to be the next big thing,” said Hany Adeeb, marketing & communications manager for Doremi Labs, the leading maker of digital cinema playback gear.

Don Shaw, director, product management for projector maker Christie says “High frame rate truly is night-and-day. Even the lay person can see the difference.”

But d-cinema systems weren’t originally conceived for a 3D, high-frame-rate world — not all digital cinema projectors can even make the switch. The early generation of d-cinema projectors, dubbed “Series 1,” simply aren’t capable of showing high frame rate 3D.

More recent “Series 2″ projectors can be upgraded, but the expense and difficulty of those upgrades varies. Theaters storing digital prints on a server, for instance, need to attach to each projector hardware called an “Integrated Media Block.”

The easiest upgrade is for a series 2 projector that already has an IMB; in that case, the switch to 48 fps is just a software upgrade. Most recent “Series 2″ installed used IMBs.

Each of the makers of the most popular 3D projection systems (RealD, MasterImage, Xpand and Dolby) says its systems are either HFR ready or easily upgradable, though several doubt each others’ claims. One thing that won’t be happening soon is a combination of 4K resolution — which is already in some theaters — 3D and high frame rates. Today’s gear and networks can’t handle that much data.

“That’s going to be a forklift upgrade when that comes about,” said Shaw. “That would require a full-scale replacement of all of the equipment in a movie theater.”

High frame rates will be the subject of an expert panel at the SIGGRAPH conference at the L.A. Convention Center at 11 Wednesday morning. Among those skedded to speak is Doug Trumbull, who pioneered high frame rates with his Showscan system and is now working on HFR for digital cinema.

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