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Q&A: James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd on How to Save Moviegoing

SAN DIEGO — Screening Room, the home streaming movie service backed by Napster co-founder Sean Parker and former SFX Entertainment executive Prem Akkaraju, made waves earlier this year with big names like Peter Jackson and J.J. Abrams supporting the platform. With his producer Jon Landau, James Cameron was one of the first filmmakers to speak out against it, arguing for the sanctity of the theatrical experience.

But what is the future of exhibition, really? While promoting the 30th anniversary of “Aliens” at Comic-Con last week, Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd spoke to Variety about what that future could be, the pitfalls of virtual reality and the importance of exhibitors to protect the experience and infrastructure they already have in place.

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After all the discussion around Screening Room, where does exhibition need to go next? With “Avatar,” you brought 3D to the forefront and it’s become pretty standard, but where do things need to progress to continue offering a dynamic, singular existence?

James Cameron: Well, you’ve got high frame rate. You’ve got HDR. Brightness levels are critical. Dolby is doing a whole high-end experience. There are IMAX-like things that are proliferating. I just think it’s incumbent on the exhibition community to provide the absolute maximum possible experience. We’re never quite there. The tech is always a little ahead of the mass rollout. The question for the filmmaker is, “Am I authoring for what it should look like, or am I authoring for what it will look like?” And when you’re doing a 3D digital intermediate these days, like I was just doing on “Terminator 2” for the 3D re-release in October, it’s a little bit heartbreaking. You say, “Well, it should be at 10 foot-lamberts as a minimum,” but you’ve got to author for three and a half. So the exhibition community still needs to step up to protect what they have. Now, what they have is still very powerful and it’s a bastion that I don’t think is going to be assailed by all these other platforms any time soon, because the group experience of a movie in passive mode where you can’t pause it and picture-in-picture and text over it and all this other stuff, where it’s just going to flood into your brain, is still going to be sacred, I think, indefinitely. It doesn’t mean there won’t be other alternatives.

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Is there a bigger idea, though? Beyond the proscenium?

Cameron: What, do you want us to just zap it into your visual cortex? [Laughs]

I don’t know. You’re the genius!

Cameron: I’d do it if the tech existed! A lot of people are looking at augmented reality and virtual reality. These are interesting authoring tools, but to me, they’re not there yet.

Gale Anne Hurd: They’re gimmicks! Virtual reality makes me throw up.

Cameron: It’s a little rough on the vestibular system, yeah.

Hurd: I literally, four seconds wearing it, I’m like, “I’m going to throw up.”

Cameron: Well, you can’t move the camera. When they talk about shooting a film in VR, it’s not really VR. It’s an immersive omni-vision camera system where you have some interactivity to change your field of view. But you have no control over your spatial displacement in the environment. They’re going to do that for you. And the second you create something that realistic and then you move the camera, people throw up. How are you going make a movie and not move the camera? How can you make a movie where you can’t cut? So there may be a narrative art form that emerges from that, but it’s not a movie.

So, what’s going to happen with movies on the big screen? We’ve got to make them brighter. I think screens can be larger and fill more of the peripheral vision. I love 3D but that needs to be brightened up. You need high dynamic range. All of these things are possible, it just becomes a price point issue and the exhibition community knows they’re fighting for their market share and they need to spend the money to do it.

Hurd: My big concern is piracy. That’s the thing that people aren’t even thinking about, the fact that so much content is pirated immediately. “File Sharing” sounds like a good thing. It’s file stealing. I’ve just seen the figures — there’s money to be made in it and that’s not what people are thinking about. If they go to a torrent site or whatever, they’re making money through advertising. So it’s not like, “Oh, your friend is helping you out.” There’s billions that people are making. The more that’s siphoned away because people are like, “Oh, I’ll just wait and I’ll stream it and I don’t even have to pay to stream it from a legitimate source,” that is making it so much tougher on the exhibitors.

Cameron: The biggest hedge against piracy is still the sanctity of the viewing experience in a movie theater — when it comes to movies. With “The Walking Dead” or something like that, that’s not what you’re selling, but if we’re talking about movies and theatrical exhibition, keeping it great, making it a special experience, is still the biggest hedge against that. Because even if piracy was totally legal and download rates were much faster, you’re still watching it on a small platform, and it’s not that social experience.

Hurd: It’s why the music industry, that has been destroyed by piracy, has gone back to touring. Because illegally streaming a song does not replace seeing someone in person. I go to my local cinemaplex and I can still hear all the explosions of the film in the next auditorium. It takes you right out of the experience.

Not to mention, to your point about brightness levels, projector and bulb issues. I don’t know what it’s like today but I certainly remember working in a movie theater and the companies pinching pennies by not replacing bulbs.

Cameron: That’s right, or not turning them up all the way [to stretch out their time of use].

 

Hurd: I’m sure Jim does this to this day but we would go in and read the brightness of the screen.

Cameron: Yeah, with a foot-lambert meter, just in some of the flagship theaters, to make sure the film was being run properly. And then go up into the booth and get them to turn it up.

Hurd: Or get the studio to call and say, “If we’re going to play your circuits, this has to be a premium experience.”

Cameron: [George] Lucas was a big firebrand for this with the theater alignment program and so on and you can hire people to do theater alignment. Just collectively the industry needs to know if we fail at creating a premium immersive experience in the theater, then the Napster-like downloading phenomenon will destroy the industry, because then you won’t be able to afford to make a movie like “Avatar” or “Transformers” or “Captain America” or any of these big films. The economics will no longer make sense. And you simply won’t have them in any format or platform.

And to your points about piracy, that’s the answer I never heard from Screening Room. They and their supporters kept insisting there was an anti-piracy element, but I never got details on that.

Cameron: Yeah, and what mode or what relief did they offer for somebody bringing 20 friends, who might have bought a ticket, over to watch it. They were compensating for concessions losses, basically. They weren’t compensating for those phantom viewers, all of whom represent a potential lost ticket.

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