4K TV Will Leave the Film Biz Reeling

Cinema tech needs to innovate fast

Cinema tech better innovate fast to keep up with picture quality in the living room

Abraham Lincoln told the story of the sage who was asked for a piece of wisdom that applied in all situations. “This too shall pass,” said the sage. So too for technology and entertainment. Nothing lasts forever, and something new is always aborning. So in 2013, dear friends, we mourn the passing of 35mm film, the strip of dreams, while we marvel at the birth of Ultra High-Definition 4K television, which its creators dream will bring the film experience to the home.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

It’s the Circle of Tech.

But thanks to this synchronicity, we live in strange days. This year, if Netflix and Sony stick to their plans, there will be early viewers with 4K Ultra HD televisions watching 4K movies on-demand. Meanwhile, movie theaters will still be taking delivery of 2K digital cinema packages (i.e. DCPs) on hard drives shipped by plane and truck. Home theater will have leapfrogged the cinema.

I was going to raise this issue with Christopher Nolan when I spoke with him about the end of film prints, but he brought it up first. “2K digital projectors are basically just high-definition TVs projected,” he said. “In an era when you can now buy a 4K television that has four times the data of what your local theater is throwing up on the bigscreen, it’s a very perilous transition to be forcing on the industry.”

I agree. But cinema has faced such peril before, and as history teaches us (to paraphrase another wise man), the movie business can be counted on to do the right thing — once it has exhausted all other possibilities.

Cinema has hordes of ingenious technologists laboring to upgrade its product. Sometimes they succeed, especially if they can argue their innovations will cut costs (digital cinema!), lure auds (70mm! Digital sound!) or command an upcharge (3D! Imax!). But they’re always swimming against the tide. It’s not that exhibitors and distributors don’t care about improving quality, it’s just that trying to get them to agree on anything new and big is well nigh impossible.

But for TV manufacturers, the ability to offer ever-better picture, ever-truer sound, ever-cooler features is most of the game. If they can inspire consumers to upgrade, they can sell billions of units. So the cycle of history is: Cinema gets a head start, TV catches up, cinema panics and lurches forward. Repeat.

UHD TV will force cinema to lurch to its next evolution, and upgrading all cinemas to 4K, highframe rate and 3D won’t be enough. That will only get cinemas to parity with the latest in TV.

I’m betting the first thing to change will be invisible to the audience: No more shipping hard drives with 2K DCPs; it’s time for delivery by broadband.

Then, inevitably, cinema will have its moment of panic. My guess is that the movie biz will turn to a proven format it knows TV can’t match: giantscreens like Imax, which boast frames of approximately 12K resolution. An 8K version of UHD has been demonstrated by Japan’s NHK, but nobody expects TV as we know it to go beyond that. So I’d be surprised if giantscreens don’t become more prevalent and of greater importance to the cinema business as UHD becomes the dominant TV format.

Then, to make the theatrical experience really stand apart from TV, they’ll throw in some of the advanced cinema tech now in the pipeline: high frame rate, enhanced color, laser-driven projectors and more.

That upgrade cycle for TV and theaters could last 15-20 years. Which, not coincidentally, takes us to about when holographic TV is supposed to be ready. When that day comes, we’ll mourn the passing of 4K UHD, and cinema will evolve again.

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  1. totovigo says:

    I stopped going to the cinema when I realized the quality of my home theater surpasses it. Better experience too!

  2. Sounds like 8K may be the future of cinema? Way to be ahead of the curve, Sony.

  3. artfrankmiami says:

    Nothing beats TRUE 5 story tall screen IMAX. Our local IMAX is even cheaper than the chain theaters that have the fake IMAX and/or 3D.

    But, having a projector and a 9 foot wide blank wall and an awesome sound system, I can watch a regular DVD and still feel most of the impact of watching a movie at the theater. I’m just missing really awesome popcorn and idiots who need to check their cell phones.

    But I have seen a Fathom Events satellite distributed showing of Casablanca at a Cinemark Theater (which thank God DOESN’T use SONY 4K Projectors) and I was sad to learn it was basically the same file as the Blu-Ray that was used–but seeing the film on the much bigger screen than my wall, there were details and bits of business that I noticed for the first time. Hopefully the theater experience will prevail for a little while longer.

  4. Rena Moretti says:

    Daily Variety stopped publishing in part because the articles were uninteresting. It’s sad to see it continues to publish the pablum of Mr. Cohen and his ill-informed, yet self-important “musings”…

  5. Gitboy says:

    Sorry but what has this got to do with Red?
    We are talking about the UHD standard which has 3840 horizontal pixels. Film scan traditionally have 2048 so that’s what is projected via the DCP. This has nothing to do with acquisition bayer chips vs emulsion and has more to do with pixel specs for delivery. Red could make a 100k bayer but of its delivered via 2K DCP it’ll still be delivered at a lower spec than via a 4K TV download. This is true in the same way that a 4K scan if a film shot movie will look better than a projected 2K version of the same. If you’re sceptical it’s because you obviously haven’t seen anything 4K yet.

  6. Howard MARKS says:

    No such thing ! What they call 4K is in fact 2K what they call 2K is in fact 1K !!

    This is the marketing hype based upon what I call PAW pixels across width that is not
    the decades old academic way of measuring resolution and definition which is done by
    counting vertical lines. Look a few years ago when everyone was raving about RED’s
    so-called 4K camera I knew it was not true. So I went to their own website and read
    their tech spec with an informed mind. Plus a friend had the camera bench tested.
    Even by their own method measure the bench test proved 3.2K not 4K but when
    you read their spec in accordance with the academic way of measuring electronic
    image definition it camen out as 2.5K in 1.78:1 and 1.8K in scope and I drew that
    conclusion from their own spec numbers from their own 4K shouting website by
    having an informed mind and applying academic not marketing hype reading.

    • Rob says:

      Howard MARKS says:
      [[ No such thing ! What they call 4K is in fact 2K what they call 2K is in fact 1K !! ]]

      That really doesn’t change the point of anything he said in the article though. Even if it is 1k going to 2k (rather than 2 to 4) the point of what cinema needs to do to keep ahead of TV remains true whether you call it 1k or 4k or 893k.

    • Rena Moretti says:

      Red spends a lot of money getting journalists to be impressed with its unimpressive cameras.

      What is sad is to see so many filmmakers capitulate and use it in spite of the fact it makes their product look dull and uninspiring.

      We live in a sad era where playing with the latest gadget, no matter how uninteresting creatively takes precedence over creating something beautiful and interesting.

      • artfrankmiami says:

        I have no personal experience with RED, but I have purchased some stock video shots that look very impressive–but it is of the desert so there was a lot of color.

        I did enjoy watching behind the scenes of GAMER (I think) where they were using the then new RED cameras and the DP discovered the cameras ISO ratings were inaccurate and marked on the cameras their true ISO ratings. I’ve had similar issues with a Canon professional still camera, where at ISO 1600, I couldn’t get low-light images that I could with an older camera and film at the same ISO.

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