Up For Discussion: Is James Cameron Bullying Exhibitors?

As the nation's film exhibitors get together for Cinemacon this week, James Cameron keeps pressuring them to make costly changes to their projection set-ups. 

The past few weeks we've been talking a lot about the death of film and the rise of digital. Film Crit Hulk has an excellent piece today, in fact. As we've been having this discussion something keeps coming to mind: it's all moving too fast.

I don't mean this in an anti-technology way. I mean it in the way that changes are happening so fast that filmmakers aren't really able to keep up, and we keep having movies released that look like shit because nobody has quite figured out how to use the tech right yet. In fifty years people will look back at the aesthetic of our time with a sneer, because the best filmmakers (directors and cinematographers) are churning out movies that, frankly, look like garbage. 

Hulk touches on that in his newest piece. But there's another side to it, the exhibition side, and once again everything is moving too fast there. Just as most theaters have finally made the transition to digital projection, the gearheads who are now the prime movie movers and shakers are asking everybody to change over again, this time to a system that can show movies at a 48 frame per second rate.

Leading this charge? Same as it ever was, James Cameron. 

David Bordwell, one of the finest thinkers on cinema, has written an excellent blogpost today detailing Cameron's history of pushing exhibitors forward into new tech realms using scaremongering. Cameron knows that the exhibitors maintain an almost genetic fear of TV, a fear that was instilled in them in the 50s (the last great era of gimmicky bullshit cinematic techniques intended to get people off the couch and into the theater). That was how he (along with the likes of George Lucas and Peter Jackson) got exhibitors to go digital in a big way. In 2005 less than a hundred US screens were digital, and by using the advent of 3D - promised as the savior of the movie theater - Cameron and the gang worked a major change in moviegoing, one that is leading to the death of film.

The argument, of course, was that 3D was something you could only get in movie theaters. That was the incentive to exhibitors. But Cameron decided to play both sides against the middle, and now he has begun going to broadcasters with his 'man from the future' schtick and has been telling them that 3D TV is the next big wave. One of the advantages 3D TV has over theatrical is that it's brighter and effectively looks better. 

So, Bordwell argues, Cameron rushed digital and 3D into theaters - at a big cost to exhibitors - by putting the fear of TV in them. The systems we got were not up to snuff, and by now everybody knows that 3D movies often look pretty shitty. I have a ton of friends who search out 2D screenings of films (I recommend the 2D of The Avengers, as the 3D is - as usual - worthless). And it seems like the 3D bump in revenue is already diminishing as people get sick of underlit films.

And now Cameron is coming back with another system, the 48fps system, which he says will fix the problems that were inherent in the last digital wave (dim, strobing pictures). And again, it's all about beating TV, because TV is getting big into 3D. With James Cameron's help. And getting theaters up to 48fps will be expensive; Bordwell says that only projectors made after January 2010 will be able to be retrofitted, and any earlier projectors will need to be replaced. And retrofitting the projectors could cost up to $10,000 a machine. 

Within ten years theaters will have gone through two or three different generations of projection systems. And I'm guessing 48fps isn't the end game. In five years, once everybody has retooled their set up, something new will come along that will fix the problems in the 48fps image (problems which, by the way, will be denied by evangelicals, much as 3D evangelicals denied dim projection and strobing images). And by then Cameron will have played the other side as well, creating a new threat to scare theater owners into changing into his latest technological fad.

Read Bordwell's piece here - he's much smarter and makes these points better than I do. Here's his summation:

First, there was a time when exhibitors called these directors’ bluff. When Lucas griped that there weren’t enough digital screens for Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005), John Fithian, president of the National Organization of Theater Owners, replied memorably: “I don’t put projectors in just for Star Wars.”

Now, it seems, the exhibitors are so scared of missing the next blockbuster that the filmmakers can dictate terms. It’s remarkable that these men can do something neither Griffith nor DeMille nor Disney nor any other powerful Hollywood filmmaker of the classic years dared do. They keep asking that the fundamental technology of cinema be changed so we can all watch a couple of their movies for a month or two every few years.

Second, if these guys are so passionately committed to quality, why don’t they make better movies?