The iconic scene in The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white house and steps into the colorful world of Oz, was a defining moment in the history of cinema — unforgettable in the minds of so many moviegoers the summer of 1939.
In an era before color televisions, that moment — one of the first in color in a major motion picture — changed how viewers experienced cinema and was presented so dramatically as part of the story. Through presentation viewers felt the same sense of wonder as Dorothy when she took her first steps down the Yellow Brick Road.
In a year where theater attendance hit a 20-year low, Rancho Cordova-based company Barco is looking to recapture that very same magic — all while navigating the aging standards of an industry that has long been stuck in neutral.
“We have a high expectation of movies,” says CEO of Barco Escape, Todd Hoddick. “We expect them to transport us into an adventure or a romance … The inspiration for us was to create compelling experiences that create moments, moments that you can’t have at the bowling alley or on your iPad, moments that can only happen in a cinema.”
Barco, a global powerhouse in the international digital projector market, introduced Sacramento to its new 3-screen theater, Barco Escape, this September. The three full-sized screens, positioned at obtuse angles to one another so that they wrap around the audience, comprise an almost panoramic viewing experience. Directors can use all three screens at once for a single continuous shot, or use each screen to show different angles or scenes (think concerts, extreme sports, or “esports” video game tournaments).
But in a business where film standards and regulations were drawn up with older technology in mind, innovation is not without its hiccups.
Created in 2002 as a joint venture among the top studios in Hollywood, Digital Cinema Initiatives sets standards and specifications for digital cinema, with the intention of creating a uniform technical performance and preserving the quality and integrity of films. The DCI forbids the bending or warping of pixels in any way, so as not to compromise a film’s artistic vision.
This caused Barco, in pursuit of a panoramic view, to go with the three separate, uncurved screens — as opposed to one, massive curved screen, despite the fact that the latter would be a potentially better experience with no breaks in the picture.
“Somebody hung a bed sheet in the front of the room 100 years ago and said, ‘That’s how you make movies,’ and when you challenge that, it has a lot of implications,” Hoddick says. “It takes the studio and the director to break away from the current allowed standards.”
“I think that two or three years from now, you’ll see that the standards become updated, but today the standards have all been build for what we’ve seen for 100 years,” he continues.
The experience is, as Hoddick puts it, “a whole new canvas,” and it is fast gaining traction in the industry.
In 2016, Hoddick says that the number of theaters featuring Barco Escape will jump from 20 to more than 150. This year, the company also announced a 5-year, multi-film deal with 20th Century Fox and has with numerous other studios in the works. Hollywood heavyweight producer Jerry Bruckheimer has announced plans to reimagine one of his blockbusters in the Barco Escape format.
The initial installations costs $100,000, and theaters then pay a hefty $10,000 per film for the 3-screen theater.
In a time of advanced home theater systems, online streaming content services and rampant piracy, the new experience is a concerted effort to drive visitors back to the cinema.
In 2014, movie theater attendance in the United States and Canada hit its lowest point — a meager 1.27 billion admissions — since 1995. Meanwhile, the average ticket price for admission soared to its highest rate ever at $8.17, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
Hoddick hopes that reimagining theaters as entertainment centers and not only places to watch a movie — which many potential moviegoers can do at home and get a similar experience — can help bolster an industry that desperately needs a facelift.
“When people get used to going to the cinema and really seeing the difference in the image quality and having it all around you, I think they’re going to be less satisfied with their iPhones and their Netflix and their home cinema experience,” Hoddick says.
“Fingers crossed, our grandchildren will come to us and say, ‘You used to watch movies on a single screen? How lame.’”