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Exhib biz in need of laser-sharp focus

New projectors promise to light up theatrical experience

OK, box office is down. And even if Hollywood hasn’t exactly been wailing and gnashing its teeth, there’s certainly been a spate of analysis pieces on why auds aren’t lining up like they used to.

Roger Ebert nailed the biz with a damning list of reasons why theaters are losing customers: no must-see pics to lure auds off the couch, high ticket prices, improvements in home theater and the unpleasant experience of other theatergoers talking, texting and lighting up the room with their cellphone screens. All too true, Mr. Ebert, all too true.

I’ve also argued for a while that dim, dreary projection, in 2D and especially 3D, is undermining the moviegoing experience in ways no one fully understands except movie insiders — because only insiders know how the movies were supposed to look.

On that front, at least, help is on the way.

On Monday, while most of us are focused on announcements of the newest gadgets in the run-up to the Consumer Electronics Show, technologists gathered in Galveston, Texas, for the Moody Gardens Digital Cinema Symposium will see a major public demonstration of a laser-driven movie projector.

“What people will see in Galveston is the brightest projector on the planet for digital cinema,” said Todd Hoddick, VP of entertainment, North America, for Barco.

It’s a Barco projector, so Hoddick can’t be blamed for a little bragging. He said the laser projector will deliver 14 foot lamberts of brightness across a 70-foot screen.

“The objective for us in showing the laser projector,” says Hoddick, “is to help people understand the technology and where laser projection is at right now and begin a dialogue about what people are interested in seeing from laser.”

Barco’s isn’t the first laser projector. Kodak has been showing one at its Rochester HQ for some time, and Imax has pacted to deploy Kodak laser projectors once they’re available.

Peter Lude, chair and co-founder of the Laser Illuminated Projector Assn., noted that there have been many demonstrations of laser-driven projectors at tradeshows and in laboratories.

“That’s not hard,” he told Variety. “The real test will be are these affordable and can these be deployed on a practical basis. That’s what we’re waiting for.” Barco’s Hoddick said it’ll be one to three years before the first units come to market. (Kodak and Imax estimated they’ll arrive sometime in 2013.)

Hoddick still sees issues with laser projectors. Laser lamps today are about 10 times the cost of the xenon lamps they’ll replace, and until that price comes down they’ll probably be limited to specialty venues like Imax. There are also nagging regulatory hurdles, since laser projectors still fall under restrictive regulations designed to protect audiences from eye damage in laser light shows. While laser projectors don’t present the same hazards, regulators haven’t caught up to the new tech yet, so government variances are needed to build and install them.

But laser lamps promise brighter images and a wider color gamut, last 10 times as long and stay brighter over their lives than xenon lamps.

So the technologists are doing their part to make movies look better. Now all we need to get box office soaring again is a regular supply of compelling Hollywood movies. At cheaper prices. With polite, attentive audiences.

Hey, we’re practically there. Right?

***

If that prescription for recovery hasn’t made you queasy, consider an emerging trend from the consumer electronics world: 4K television.

You’re probably tempted to dismiss ultra-high-definition 4K TV as something for the far future. In fact, there’s already a 4K flatscreen on sale in Japan. But, more importantly, I think all this investment in 4K TV tells us how the CE companies see the medium-term future. And their vision may shock you.

Today there’s almost no 4K content to watch and no way to deliver it over conventional TV channels. Also, on most popular TV sizes, you wouldn’t be able to see the difference between HD and 4K anyway unless you sat inches from the screen.

But 4K becomes useful if TVs get bigger. A lot bigger. Like, as big as an entire wall of your living room. As for delivery, the only practical solution in sight is streaming over very fast broadband.

There are other things that a consumer could do with all those pixels. They could watch 3D, without glasses, at the same resolution 3D movies are shown in theaters, only brighter and sharper. They could put a movie or TV show in one corner of the screen at full HD and put Facebook or Twitter next to it. But in general, I see giant CE companies preparing for a world with home screens as big and immersive as theaters, and broadband connections fast enough to stream or download giant data files, like 4K movies, quite easily.

Scary? Well, as Edward van Sloan told audiences for “Frankenstein,” “We warned you.”

BITS & BYTES

Ali Ahmadi has joined LED lighting fixture maker Litepanels as senior product manager. Ahmadi is based out of Litepanels Southern California office.

Cineplex Theaters of Canada is installing D-Box motion seats in an additional 10 screens. … Dolby Screen Server has been certified DCI compliant. Dolby Screen Server owners must download a software update to achieve full DCI compliance.

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