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France bids adieu to silver screens

New CNC standard will impact RealD, MasterImage, Imax systems

Taking a position that threatens to turn the theatrical 3D business upside down, France’s film board the CNC has announced plans to phase out all silver screens from Gaul’s theaters within five years.

The bold move, announced Wednesday by CNC prexy Eric Garandeau, essentially rules out one leader in the 3D exhibition market, RealD, as well as MasterImage and most Imax screens, as all use polarized-light systems that require silver screens. It favors competitors Dolby and Xpand, since both already meet the Assn. Francaise de Normalisation (Afnor) standard for screens.

Garandeau told Variety he hopes other countries will follow France’s example. “I look forward to discussing the issue with my European counterparts during the next EFAD (Council of Europe Film Policy) meeting,” Garandeau said.

At issue is the “hot spot” that appears on silver screens when they’re used for 2D.

The Afnor standard says the dropoff in brightness from the center of the screen to the edge can’t be more than 20%. With a silver screen, the dropoff in brightness is typically much greater than that. All French exhibitors will have to meet the Afnor standard by 2017.

Garandeau set out the French board’s position last month during a public speech, declaring “The silver screen … has the effect of a soap that turns the shining white into dirty gray … That’s not acceptable.”

General delegate Laurent Hebert of France’s Image and Sound Superior Technical Commission (CST) said he expected France’s declaration to spur further discussion in the global exhibition realm. “The fact that France has made this decision will certainly jump-start the debate over standards in other European countries and in the U.S.,” he said.

Gaul has 2,519 3D screens, of which around 1,200 use silver screens. About 850 of those are RealD, which dominates the 3D projection market in the U.S. and Canada.

If the decision stands, French exhibitors that have installed Imax, RealD or MasterImage technology will be forced to switch within five years to another system that uses a white screen.

The leaders in that area are Xpand, which uses active-shutter glasses, and Dolby, which uses passive glasses based on color filters. Both Dolby and Xpand advocate reusable glasses, shunned by many exhibs because they’re pricier to buy and require extra staff and spending for cleaning and handling.

Various bodies, notably the CST, the Image and Sound Superior Technical Commission; ARP, the guild repping producers, actors and authors; and musicians’ org Sacem, have argued that silver screens degrade the image for pics screened in 2D. When the Cannes Film Festival installed 3D projection in 2009, it avoided the problem by opting for the Xpand system.

Jean-Louis Rizet, Ficam’s head of animation, said the CST, CNC and Ficam have always advised exhibs against silver screens and recommended active glasses or Dolby. France’s film and technicians guilds lobbied for months for this ban.

“Silver screens create a halo that alters the colors on the borders of the frame,” said Rizet.

A CNC spokesperson said, “France is a digital frontrunner, with about 4,000 out of 5,400 screens equipped, and now we aim at also becoming the leader in providing moviegoers with the best-quality screenings.”

Among today’s 3D projection systems, however, RealD delivers the brightest image while low light is the biggest issue plaguing 3D in theaters. The CNC decision would force a tradeoff between today’s brightest 3D presentations and best 2D presentation. Hebert said the org was not questioning the quality of RealD for 3D. “If an auditorium can be entirely devoted to 3D then it could keep its silver screen.”

However, there’s not enough 3D content for theaters to dedicate auditoriums exclusively to 3D.

Hebert said, “The CNC’s decision ultimately challenges 3D providers to improve their technology to comply to the appropriate standard.”

Rick Heineman, RealD VP of corporate communications, said, “We believe discussions on this matter between all parties will be ongoing and it will be worked out to the benefit of those that matter the most: the moviegoing audience that has wholeheartedly embraced 3D in France.”

Heineman added that exhibs in France who have committed to RealD have said they intend to move ahead with their rollout plans despite the CNC edict.

Marc-Olivier Sebbag, general delegate of the FNCF, Gaul’s Exhibitors Assn., said arthouse and independent theaters don’t have silver screens. “For the most part, it’s the large circuits that have virtual print fees deals which are concerned by the CNC’s plan because they use the RealD system and have silver screens.”

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