The Summer of 4K?

This was supposed to be the summer of 3D but instead it has quickly become the summer of 4K or, at least, the summer of the 4K press releases. The real question is this: What does any of this really mean to exhibitors, the people who are already trying to integrate new technology into their actual day-to-day businesses?

First, some history:
The 4K-2K debate has been ongoing since the very earliest days of digital cinema. In the run up to the formation of the Digital Cinema Initiative, Sony and a few others lobbied strongly to have 4K included as a central component of the original specifications. The initial response from the Texas Instruments people who were involved at the time – many of whom are no longer with the company – seemed to be to resist, or at least to ignore, 4K at every turn. And once TI successfully demonstrated its first 2K chip to the movie community the digital cinema era began in full force.

Meanwhile, and for some time the Hollywood production and post-production communities have been solidly behind a move to 4K. The almost cult-like acceptance around the world of the Red One camera has helped lead that charge. Other camera manufacturers are competing strongly at the high-resolution end. Sony’s own newly released F35 camera is currently being used on several productions in Hollywood, Panavision’s Genesis camera is a favorite of many cinematographers and JVC has announced that it will soon bring to market its own professional 4K camera.

A growing number of studios support at least the idea of 4K-movie distribution. This Spring Sony Pictures Entertainment released Angels & Demons in 4K, which is to be expected but, in a sign of a growing trend, Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox both recently released movies in 4K, The Soloist and X-Men Origins: Wolverine respectively. The dream of many in Hollywood is to have a production, post-production and exhibition workflow that is built – seamlessly they envision – on 4K technology. Agree or disagree, but some have made the case that a 4K workflow from start to finish most closely mirrors the current worldwide celluloid workflow that digital cinema was designed (and is destined) to replace.

Which brings us to the most recent 4K developments. They began, of course, with Sony’s announcements that first AMC and then Regal would incorporate Sony 4K technology – projectors and servers – across the board in all their theatres. These press releases were followed rather quickly by a series of 4K announcements including:

Texas Instruments DLP Cinema’s plans to incorporate enhanced 4K technology as an extension of the next generation electronics platform for DLP Cinema projectors. TI says it will continue to innovate on and further the development of its DLP Cinema 2K chips. The new chip is designed for theatre screens as big as 100 feet and 3D screens as big as 75 feet.

Cinemark says it will work exclusively with TI when adopting 4K. In tandem with that announcement Doremi Cinema says that it has entered into an exclusive agreement with Cinemark to provide 2K and 4K-server technology for their digital cinema deployment. And Barco says that it will supply Cinemark with 4K projectors.

Also, and in a move that is likely to be followed by other server manufacturers, GDC Technology says that it is developing a 4K Media Block, which will be compatible with the new generation of 4K chip being developed by Texas Instruments.

Finally, Christie says it plans to introduce its Solaria series digital cinema projectors, based on the new TI 4K chip. The new product line includes the Christie CP2210, Christie CP2220 and the Christie CP2230 – all available at 2K and 4K-ready; as well as Christie’s premium 4K projectors for screens up to 100 feet: the Christie CP4220 and the Christie CP4230.

All of the above developments are set to go into effect next year – at the earliest.

When Texas Instruments announced that it would introduce a 4K chip next year Nancy Fares, TI’s manager of DLP Cinema, made a point of emphasizing that the company has said for a long time that, “There’s nothing to keep us from doing 4K except timing and the market.” Fares continues to stress both the success of 2K versus 4K and that TI has no intention of abandoning 2K technology as a viable option. When projecting 3D, she says, “We have more pixels in 2K than 4K projectors do. Our 4K is not a replacement for 2K. It’s an option for 4K for exhibitors to use on big screens. We will continue to innovate in both areas.” She called offering a choice, “The reality the industry deserves.”

Making a case for offering choices is sensible for Texas Instruments and its OEM partners if only for the fact that, for now at least, Sony seems to be sticking to its 4K guns and has no plans to introduce a 2K projector.

Gary Johns, vice president, Digital Cinema Systems Division, Sony Electronics, says, “Sony has always maintained that 4K is the right choice for digital cinema, and that fact continues to be embraced by both exhibitors and studios. The adoption of 4K technology now by other companies is just further endorsement of the position to which Sony dedicated its financial and technology investments five years ago.”

He says that, “4K technology is still the most effective foundation for a digital cinema system, with a noticeable improvement in picture quality. It allows exhibitors to future-proof their operations for the expanding number of 4K motion picture releases. It gives theatres the flexibility for high-quality 2D playback as well as the increasingly important ability to display spectacular 3D releases. It is also capable of displaying 2K content better than 2K projectors. Sony has no plans to offer a 2K-only projector for digital cinema.”

For market leader Christie the move to 4K seems to an inevitable step in the ongoing evolution of the digital cinema era. Jack Kline, Christie’s president and COO, says, “The industry told us they could see no difference between 2K and 4K projection on screens of 40 feet and smaller, the standard in exhibition. But – in some cases – exhibitors said they would prefer higher resolution. We listened to our customers.”

Nevertheless, he says, “We still believe that DLP 2K will continue to be the dominant platform in theatres.”

The lone holdout – at least for now – among the three OEMs for Texas Instruments has been NEC, which has so far made no announcement one way or the other about 4K.

Jim Reisteter, NEC’s general manager of digital cinema, says as a matter of corporate philosophy NEC believes in listening to customers first. Reisteter says he has spent the summer talking with customers and prospects to gauge their interest in 4K. Prior to this summer no one had ever even mentioned the subject of 4K to him and, while some have done so recently, he attributes this to all of the publicity generated by the recent announcements. He says he still hasn’t seen a groundswell of demand for a move up from 2K.

“We really don’t rush to market [with new technology],” Reisteter says. “I’ve been listening to customers and their main question for 2K or 4K is still: ‘Where is the money going to come from?’”

That is the sentiment I got from the exhibitors I spoke with about the issue. None of them wanted to speak on the record because they have relationships with many manufacturers and don’t want to be seen as taking sides.

One industry veteran, whose entire small chain has been 2K digital for years, was typical. He didn’t want his name used in this article but he had plenty to say and summed the situation up beautifully:

“I think all these announcements are just meant to keep their hats in the ring. As we both know, anyone can craft a press release. But given the sudden about face of TI’s position on it, I would question their ability to deliver. Separately, Sony is cutting back production and it remains to be seen if they can deliver at the pace required on their existing contracts. The presentation difference presently doesn’t justify the expense. Additionally, until the Studios see the need to spend more producing a 4K version, they probably won’t be big supporters. 4K will probably be in our future somewhere, but prices will have come down beforehand. I think price is the final arbiter. 4K is 2K prices.”

Source: Digital Cinema Report