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Reflections on the Future of Large Format Film

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Written by: Hans Kummer
Date: October 27, 2003

Longtime industry member Hans Kummer shares his thoughts on the current state of the Big Movie industry and its future.

  

Category: Columns

Large format film has a very unique power to speak to the human soul in ways that mere words or other media cannot describe. We have not even scratched the surface of the potential that this medium has to make people think, learn and experience life in new ways.

Those who know me will note that I am an optimist in general and specifically with regard to the long-term future of the large format experience. Pessimism and cynicism are not part of my vocabulary. However, I cannot help but feel increasing amounts of these two emotions as the short-term viability of our industry continues to be undermined by the actions (or in most instances, inaction) of the industry itself.

I have been involved in our community for ten years now and have made many friends and acquaintances. It has been a privilege to work with many of you and it is always great to see everyone at the annual conferences. But in all honesty, the conversations have not changed in ten years. The same debates come and go in cyclical fashion. Virtually no one contests that LF (15/70 & 8/70) film is the most desirable medium for content origination and exhibition. Virtually no one contests the continued strong need for educational programming. In the process, however, these arguments miss the bigger picture of quality emotionally driven storytelling and avoid dealing with the real problems of economic & programming viability for films that audiences actually want to see. I applaud the GSTA leadership for recently taking proactive steps to address industry issues. I only fear that it may be too little, too late as the changes continue and the outlook worsens.

My company, Wild Child Entertainment, was founded with the express intent of developing and being involved with documentaries and entertainment based faire using advanced technology. However, a single question needed to be answered before I would get involved with any project - Does the film have a strong emotional center (or even better -- multiple emotions) from which the audience can be drawn into the action? I, as well as many other creative people in this industry, have continually been amazed, confounded and stymied that the collective intelligence of our community fails to grasp such a simple concept.

Before I continue, I must first preface my thoughts with a heart-felt sense of gratitude to the many original pioneers of large format film. It has been their visions over the last 20 to 30 years that moved me then and continues to inspire my future hopes now. However, paradigms have shifted and continue to shift. It is no wonder that the industry is the mess that it is. It continually refuses to get out of its own way and acknowledge the painful, but necessary truth that times have changed and audiences are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

Apart from the Hollywood blow-ups (I'll get to that in a few minutes), today's North American large format film audiences largely view our medium as bland & generic education with a few "thrill ride" moments thrown in for good measure. It does not matter what the subject of a film is, the "experience" of a LF film is viewed as being the same - a "Been There, Done That, So Why Should I Go Back" scenario.

Someone once described the general public's perception of LF film to me using an insightful ice cream analogy - In a world of 31 farm fresh flavors, "Imax" is prepackaged vanilla with an occasional chocolate swirl or strawberry surprise. Even school kids are saying that they are largely bored with the LF films they see. Who can blame them, when the industry says it wants newer, better, more original content, but liberally continues to program and promote generic films that spoon-feed the audience.

This fact was recently parodied on an episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart Simpson goes to the local LF Theater to see a film about "Holes." It served as an implication and reaffirmation of the obvious.

Several industry-wide studies are currently underway. From a business perspective, the information contained in these studies should be useful, if it is made available to all. However, as with the previously mentioned Simpson's reference, no survey is needed to point out the obvious. If you do not believe me, I challenge you to speak frankly with your friends and family about their take on large format. Speak candidly with people that you meet or with your children's friends. I have spoken with families from all over North America and the consensus of opinion is "When are you guys going to start telling some real stories?" Other regions of the world where large format is a developing marketplace may still be facing identity awareness issues. But, our colleagues in these regions would be wise to also be aware of the North American crisis. These developing areas will too experience the stagnated growth of our community, if corrective measures are not taken shortly.

When I was growing up and LF film was in its infancy, themed entertainment meant going to the newly opened Disney World for the thrill of an "E-ticket" ride and educational television meant connecting to something called cable to get a station called PBS. I remember spending hours at the library doing research for written and oral reports. I remember spending 10 minutes waiting for my school's computer to process information from a magnetic tape, just so I could write basic code. Back then, the business model for LF theater sales and ultimately film production grew out of the institutional desire to expand educational programming.

Today, we live in a mass media world where themed entertainment is all around us. Cable television and the Internet now allow us access to multiple channels of tiered programming 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. At any given time, you can watch an hour long documentary on a variety of subjects on a host of networks. We can now retrieve information and download files from the Internet in a matter of seconds and kids can create their own multi-media reports. Yet, despite all these societal changes, the business and creative logic behind the LF industry has remained the same. Why?

We have spoon-fed our audiences into mind-numbing oblivion. For a time, adding celebrity voice-overs and name musicians to the mix seemed to help. Now, it has just become an over-used formula. We have shown our audiences endless vistas and the ever-present queasy "you are there in the midst of the action" shots. We have taken our audiences on journeys to many of the physical places they can't go -- from the remote corners of the planet to the depths of the oceans and to space and back. Time and time again we have shown audiences generic science applications, generic travelogues and generic history lessons. Many industry insiders feel that we have run out of topics to cover, so there is a need to retread or update previous films. Why? If we continue to ignore the obvious and stick with a 30 year-old business logic and sense of creativity, that surely may be the case. However, if we change our focus just slightly to include a new perspective while giving audiences everything they have come to expect from a LF experience, I believe that we can have a long and economically viable future - eventually.

The time has come to start taking audiences on journeys into their own hearts, minds and souls -- specific stories that speak to people on an innate level. Do we really think we are providing "quality" to our audiences? On many levels, yes we are. But, after 30 years of the same formulaic eye-candy "explained" with voice-over narration, the margin of that quality is waning rapidly. We must let the education come through the emotion on screen. We must let the audience think and feel for themselves. If the audience feels intimately connected to the action, they will feel compelled to learn more. In an age of interactivity, why are we so reticent to embrace this simple logic? It applies to the creativity behind both documentaries and the entertainment genres of drama and comedy. A new way of seeing the language of large format film is all that is needed. I am glad to see that recently released LF films with this type of character such as The Human Body, Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey, Ghosts of the Abyss and Bugs! are being embraced by film programmers and audiences alike.

However, the logic and methods of large format film booking continue to be as convoluted and senseless, as they are out-dated and detrimental to the survival of the industry. How does a producer convince an investor to take a risk on an imaginatively creative project, when booking practices dictate that the film will most likely not garner enough rentals to make its money back against the likes of Hollywood blow-ups and the generic documentaries that dominate the field? How does an investor justify funding a creatively intelligent film with heart-felt emotions when poignant, beautifully composed films that speak to the soul such as Loch Lomond, Ocean Men and The Old Man & the Sea (the first LF Oscar® winner, no less) are barely even considered for exhibition? Why is this? The production value is obviously there on screen.

The potential opportunities for marketing spin are fairly obvious. A unique film like The Old Man & the Sea should have played in at least one theater in every major market for at least one booking contract -- if for no other reason than the potential school groups and art students that would enjoy the film and its Hemmingway retrospective. Why did this not happen? How does a producer look to fund a technically literate LF science film, when the beautifully poetic and thought provoking look at hard science in Cosmic Voyage is judged by exhibitors to be too technical to show to the masses? How will audiences know that there are "must-see" quality films out there, if the only exposure they have to the medium is through continuous generic faire and whatever blow-ups Hollywood dishes out?

Why has Mysteries of Egypt been such a cornerstone of success? The answer lies in its brief, but unmistakable emotional connection to the audience. In a similar fashion and with all due respect to MacGillivary Freeman Films, Everest became a success partly, if not largely, due to the huge international media coverage of the mountain tragedy. The film's audience was already emotionally connected to the story. Those of you who were also at the 1996 ISTC conference in Barcelona may recall being riveted by the post expedition work-in-progress presentation. I can only imagine how different and dramatic Everest might have been, if an even more directly emotional approach had been taken, but treated with reverence and realism.

This brings me to my next point. LF films have always been "events" (albeit with minimalist marketing) in that they have been original content that can only be seen in these types of venues. It is my opinion and that of many others I have spoken to that IMAX Corporation's aggressive DMR platform represents a fundamentally flawed business strategy. That plan seriously degrades the overall LF experience to nothing more than a big screen and better sound system. IMAX executives claim that DMR was developed in response to several years of Hollywood saying no to embracing work in the format -- due to bulky, loud and expensive camera systems and cost-prohibitive niche market venues. I am certainly all in favor of more LF entertainment programming and entertainment based theaters. Likewise, DMR and other similar services can certainly be a useful production tool. However, DMR: The "Marketing" Experience is a one-trick pony that while perhaps a popular novelty in the short-term fails to address the primary fundamental issue of original content creation exclusively for LF theaters.

LF films should continue to be Event Pictures in and of themselves, not blow-ups of the same special effects extravaganzas that can be seen on thousands of other screens. If the DMR marketing experience and the MPX theater system leads to many more theaters being built, an increase in original LF production, better marketing and a massive overhaul of the LF business model, I will be a happy producer. But given the various economic and programming realities of the LF and Hollywood markets, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none (and as the saying goes, "Slim left town a few years ago").

Referring to the previous ice cream analogy, the idea of enhancing and blowing up 35mm Hollywood films in general is like that candy coating that freezes into a hard shell on contact with your favorite ice cream. It looks interesting and tastes good, but the shell cracks easily and does not offer much substance for the additional price. Press releases can continue to tout stellar opening numbers and theaters can continue to boast of sell out crowds, but it is the cumulative box office receipts that tell the real story. What does it mean when the DMR releases of powerhouse franchise films such as Star Wars and The Matrix as well as Disney's own remastered blockbuster The Lion King have failed to presumably break even? Why is the decline in audience revenue so steep? How do producers and exhibitors justify the pros and cons of the valuable programming slots that these repurposed films are taking away from original content? Some people say that the answer lies with simultaneous LF and 35mm day and date distribution. Hollywood's current overall release strategy is to open wide with the hope of grossing as much as possible in the first week, or two, if lucky. Given this rationale the opening numbers for a LF version may be higher than previous films to date, but the revenue drop-off may possibly be even steeper than it already is. How long will the charade need to go on?

It is only a matter of time, before audiences see the ruse for what it is -- simply a bigger screen and better sound, and start asking once again, "So, when are you guys going to start telling some real stories?" Likewise, Hollywood studio executives are not stupid. The financial bottom-line of a Hollywood blow-up is considered a minimally attractive ancillary venue, at best. If the executives continue to see decreasing returns on investment, they may move-on to other lucrative ventures, which leads us right back to Square One again, or worse. What further long-term damage will have been done to the public's view of the large format experience? How will future investors and sponsors view the potential of the medium given the already tenuous economics of our industry?

Long story short -- IMAX Corp. would have done better to work with Hollywood to re-engineer the camera systems and production processes to make them more palatable and less expensive. IMAX Corp. would also be wise to work with the industry to address the problems of our basic business model. As a self-serving commercial business entity, it is certainly not obligated to do this, but given the continued tepid response to the company's offerings perhaps it is not unreasonable. Asking people to believe that the industry's future is tied to the expected success of DMR and MPX is akin to putting the proverbial cart before the horse and expecting that the horse can push it up and down the streets of San Francisco.

Throughout my travels, I have become keenly aware that history has a way of repeating itself. There is an impeding implosion on our horizon. The warning signs have been there for quite some time and the claxons are getting louder, yet little, if anything is being done. When the debris falls and the dust settles, I plan on being a survivor or as Laurence Fishburne so skillfully described MJ in Michael Jordan to the Max -- a "last man standing." But, it is the reaction (or continued lack thereof) by our industry that will serve as the guidepost for our future evolution.

As in all things, time will tell.

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