Only about 4.5% of the 10,000 or so domestic screens that will show New Line and MGM’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on December 14 will present it the way director Peter Jackson wants — at 48 frames per second instead of the conventional 24 frames. But Warner Bros Domestic Distribution President Dan Fellman tells me that this reflects a cautious rollout strategy, not a failure to win support from exhibition execs. Even now, “equipment is being tested” and some glitches have been corrected, he says. “So we did the right thing” by limiting the rollout to anywhere from 400 to 450 screens covering most major cities. “This is a technology that is going to change the way people see movies…You have to do it right.”
Warner Bros seemed to have bigger ambitions for the visually vivid 3D projection technology — which the studio’s calling “HFR” (for High Frame Rate) — at the exhibition industry’s CinemaCon trade confab in April. That effort hit a huge PR speed bump when several viewers said that they were unmoved by a 10-minute excerpt of the film in 48 fps. Carmike Cinemas’ Terrel Mayton said at the time that HFR “has to be a kick-the-picture-out (advancement) or it just becomes one of a long line of technology advances that’s here for a while and then move into oblivion.” Theater owners have to pay about $5,000 for a projector to handle HFR — first-generation digital ones can’t be upgraded. More recent projectors only require a software upgrade which can run $1,500. It can cost as much as $20,000 to make the change at an IMAX venue. Theaters also have to shell out more to store HFR prints than they do for conventional 24 fps digital films.
But Warner Bros knew at the CinemaCon demo that HFR probably wouldn’t sweep the industry because “we had no idea how fast or slow the equipment would be developed,” Fellman says. “We never expected to go 100%. At the time not one manufacturer was ready to do this. It was all in development.” He adds that the images that struck some viewers at the time as being too cold, similar to videotape, look a lot different now. Jackson “hadn’t had time to do color correction” or add graininess and filtering, Fellman says. “The reels I’ve seen knocked my socks off.” AMC Theaters says it will have 98 venues offering The Hobbit in HFR-3D and Regal Entertainment has 91. Tickets for the HFR screenings likely will cost no more than the theaters already charge for conventional 3D films.