The future of the motion picture industry will be determined by the popularity of stereoscopic films. This monstrous Caliban, ridiculed for decades, has been rehabilitated and taken to the bosom of the industry for the best of reasons; in the last few years a giant share of profit from motion pictures released in theaters has come from 3-D movies. Although revenue is rising attendance is flat, and the additional revenue is attributable to stereoscopic movies. This is good news for the studios, because DVD sales are plummeting and this makes up for that loss of revenue. And it may well be that sales of 3-D Blu-ray disks are going to be a source of additional revenue. So hooray for 3-D.
The motion picture studios have, to a significant extent, made a bet on the future: digital distribution and digital projection. They have used 3-D as the application to persuade exhibitors to accept digital projection. There are good reasons for believing that a digital future is in the cards for the cinema. Much of film production is still on film but post involves the manipulation of digital files. And digital distribution is important because of its (alleged) enhanced ability to prevent piracy the drastic reduction in print costs. On the face of it, a file on a hard drive costs a lot less than a motion picture print.
It’s the assumption that digital projection is the lynch pin of this calculation that is suspect. Although growing digital distribution of content is inevitable, digital projection is a transient technology unlike film which has been with us for a century. I doubt that the era of digital projection endure a fraction of that span. The reason I say this is the rise of flat panel displays. Think about what’s happening in sports stadiums, on the sides of buildings, and even in people’s homes. Projection of all kinds and in cinemas will eventually be supplanted by flat panel displays. Whenever projection can be replaced by a technology competitive in terms of performance and price, it’s a done deal. Projection is a cumbersome technology. It requires a space for a sufficient throw to get the image size desired. A flat panel display doesn’t need much volume for it is essentially two dimensional.
One possible technology that can achieve theater screen size flat panels is the organic light-emitting diode (OLED), an emissive technology, which might be appropriate for motion picture screens for several reasons. Since they are emissive they have no angular fall off, and since optics are not involved there is no aberration. It could be a much better image than projection can achieve. OLED screens can be produced using inkjet printers – and they can also be printed on flexible substrates. Imagine an OLED tiled screen made the way projection screens are in vertical sections of vinyl seamed together.
Another interesting aspect of flat panel displays is they can provide a good basis for stereoscopic (interdigitated micro-polarizers) or even autostereoscopic displays (with lenticular optics, for example). Everybody would like to say goodbye to the glasses, if we can have an equivalent quality image, and the way to have that happen is with flat panel screens.
The studios are correct in backing digital for distribution. The distribution of digital files, either shipped or broadcast by cable or satellite, is in the cards for the motion picture business. It’s hard to argue with this distribution model. But a lot of time and money is being put into a transient technology that will disappear, possibly soon after the projectors are paid off. Think about the ramifications of this misapplication of resources. To think that digital projectors will be with us as long as film projectors is ridiculous. Moreover I think film will be here after digital projectors are gone.
With the arrival of practical flat panel screens the digital projector installations will be the first to be replaced because those will be found in venues that can afford the newest technology. Those first exhibitors who bought digital projectors will be the first to rip them out and put in flat panel displays. That means many screens in the world may remain film-based after digital projection is gone. I admit my calculations are speculative and making predictions like this is a fool’s game.
But what the studios and the exhibitors need is revenue now; and the more stereoscopic screens that can be deployed now, the better it is for the industry – and the better it is for the public, because they will have more choices.
It is logical for the industry to take advantage of the popularity of the stereoscopic cinema, and it is logical to add more screens as soon as possible to take advantage of the medium’s momentum. Note that there is an existing platform of 135,000 35mm projectors out there that could be turned into 3-D projectors without having to wait for digital projectors.
At this critical point in the history of the motion picture business, whether 3-D becomes ubiquitous or used just for special kinds of films, the stereoscopic cinema is here to stay. There is a window of opportunity for the studios, and for the exhibitors. It’s been said before:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.