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Large Format Cinema Faces Digital Challenge

Digital alternatives seen by some as a threat By Jack Lloyd

Large Format Cinema is all about passion. For producers it's the passion of bringing films to giant screens eight stories high and up to 120 feet wide that thrill audiences with larger-than-life experiences. For cinematographers it's the passion of shooting 65mm negatives that will be projected from 70mm release prints producing a clarity that gives crystal clear depth to 2D storytelling and makes 3D imagery all-encompassing. For directors it's the passion of using the world's biggest cinematic canvas upon which to tell stories with visual impact unrivaled by conventional theatrical films.

But one major undercurrent of the Large Format Cinema Association's convention held April 28th  to 30th at Universal City just north of Hollywood was the looming challenge from digital technologies that are affecting the current production, display and marketing paradigm of the LFCA members' beloved large format filmmaking. With 2K digital cameras and projectors now a reality, 4K resolutions just around the corner, and even 8K being talked about behind closed doors, even the most stalwart devotees of the celluloid-and-sprocket hole approach to large format filmmaking are becoming aware that there are now alternatives which some LFCA members view as a threat. Even more fraught with portent, new technologies for re-mastering mainstream entertainment films into true large format presentations are starting to let Hollywood studio features compete with the nature documentaries and thrill rides that have traditionally been the hallmark of the large format industry.

Famed producer Frank Marshall, who received Best Picture Academy Award nominations for his 35mm theatrical productions "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Color Purple" and is also responsible for such 70mm large format features as "Olympic Glory" and "The Young Black Stallion", gave the convention's keynote address. "I really think the (large format) industry is caught in a 'Catch 22' situation," Marshall said. "You need the screens to generate box office that justifies making these films, but you also need more product to keep those screens going and build new ones."

Marshall, whose Kennedy/Marshall Company is currently producing the large format film, "Mars", featuring 3D images from NASA's recent landings on the red planet, is actively encouraging agents and producers to seek out short stories uniquely suited to large format story telling. "I think we need to make movies that are meant for the big screen," he told the attentive crowd, "and not by blowing up mainstream films and releasing them into large format theaters. That is really polluting the marketplace."

The earnest applause that greeted Marshall's admonition reflected the awareness of some of those attending the LFCA 2004 convention of the DMR ("Digital Re-Mastering") technology that IMAX Corp. announced in March, 2002. The patent-pending IMAX DMR process uses massive rendering farms to convert 35mm films into very high resolution digital files that are then recorded out to 70 mm release prints with six channel multi-speaker sound. DMR was first employed to bring Ron Howard's "Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience" to IMAX theaters in the summer of 2002, but  perhaps more significantly it was used to provide "The Matrix Revolutions" a day-and-date release last November which added $12 million to the film's simultaneous 35mm debut.

Now this June 4th , Warner's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" will be premiered on the same date in IMAX and conventional theaters, giving audiences a true choice of which format to watch. It will be followed on November 19th by the day-and-date release of "Polar Express", an IMAX 3D animated family feature for the holiday season.

The concern for some members of the LFCA at their 2004 convention was that digitally-prepared films such as these which were shot primarily to be see in widescreen 35mm may conflict with the kind of experience audiences have learned to associate with giant screen presentations.

"We must push for original product shot and presented in the traditional way people have come to expect from large format films," Marshall concluded. "We need to encourage mainstream filmmakers to discover the creative excitement of large format filmmaking. I truly believe that together we can all move forward to preserve and expand the true meaning of large format and the large format experience."

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Related Keywords:Large Format Cinema, producers, films, giant screen, cinematographers, 65mm negatives, 70mm release prints, storytelling, 3D imagery, directors, visual impact, theatrical films

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