Will ‘The Hobbit”s new tech be enough to satisfy audiences?

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As a rule, I don’t revisit a subject (well, not often), but a recent USA Today story by Brian Truitt spurred me to go back to a piece I wrote last month (http://popoptiq.wpengine.com/when-great-leaps-forward-arent-or-the-art-of-looking-bad/) triggered by a Washington Post story about Peter Jackson’s screening of 10 minutes of his upcoming The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey at CinemaCon.

Jackson is shooting Hobbit in a new digital 48 frames per second format which gives the image a startling clarity – according to the Post’s Ann Hornaday, maybe a bit too much clarity for some eyes.

Jackson is still pushing the 48 fps format not just because of how it enhances Hobbit, or even as the next big technological advance in filmmaking, but as a matter of industry survival.  Let me quote from Truitt’s story:

“…Jackson predict that by the time The Hobbit is released, there will be several tent-pole movies that will be using the technology.  If not, he says, the industry might as well throw in the towel.

“‘While audiences are dwindling, while kids don’t come to the movies anymore because they’re happy to watch films on their iPads, do we all sit back and celebrate the technology of 1927 and say, ‘Wow, let’s not do anything with it because that’s the look of cinema”?  Or do we try to get all these audiences to come back to the movies by saying, “You know what, this is really cool”?  It’s going to be like you’re really there.’”

If anybody knows how to push technology to entrance an audience, it’s Jackson, even more so than that great pioneering cinematic technocrat, George Lucas.  In his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson pushed CGI effects to the limit with his horizon-filling battles, his it’s-alive! rendering of Gollem – all of it credible, believable, and backed with heart and drama in a way few tech savvy filmmakers have managed.  I’d argue that even in his disappointing King Kong (2005), Jackson’s demonstration of turning the most incredible ideas into credible CGI-generate imagery is impressive.

And that’s why I think – unless he’s just dishing out pre-release hype for his film – Jackson should know better.

Screenwriter William Goldman once told the story of coming out of a screening of The Matrix (1999) amazed at the film’s effects, but also wondering how long it would take before what at first seemed fresh, novel, and dazzling, became routine.  The answer:  by The Matrix Revolutions just four years later.  What had seemed equally dazzling in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy was almost immediately beaten lifeless through overuse by the hose of sword-and-sandal epics which tried to capitalize on Jackson’s successes (i.e. Alexander [2004], Troy [2004], Kingdom of Heaven [2005]).  It only took a few years for what Jackson had managed to create to acquire a tired been-there-done-that feel.

The capper is despite LOTR’s phenomenal box office success, neither the trilogy nor its technological advances did much to stem sliding attendance numbers; a slide which has, with an upward bump here and there, been ongoing since 2003.

In fact, technology has a pretty lousy record in Hollywood as a cure for attendance ills.  The 1950s saw the industry pulling everything out of its magic tech hat but a rabbit – wide screen, stereo sound, broader use of color, 3-D, and such off-the-wall gimmicks as Smell-O-Vision and Emergo-Vision, and the like – to stem an attendance bleed dating to 1945.  Ok, they weren’t all great ideas (or even particularly good ones – Smell-O-Vision?), but wide screen, color, stereo were popular enough to become industry standards – yet attendance still dropped and didn’t bottom out until the early 1970s.

Even the recent re-introduction of 3-D (at least the third go-around for the format by my count) hasn’t done much for attendance.  Oh, 3-D surcharges have boosted revenues, but once the initial oh-wow novelty response passed, it hasn’t done much to put more tushes in theater seats.  That leads me to wonder why Jackson thinks the 48 fps format will play out any differently.  I think – as did the 3-D proponents of just a few years ago – he’s missing the central issue entirely.

Ironically, the filmmaker inadvertently put his finger square on the problem:  “…kids don’t come to the movies anymore because they’re happy to watch films on their iPads…”  That young, dwindling audience Jackson is trying to lure back with technological muscle is already opting to watch movies on a small screen (one would argue the smallest screen outside of smart phones) and hear sound through either a dinky, tinny speaker or through earphones.  This isn’t about providing that audience with a visually impressive offering; this is about a fundamental change in the movie-watching sensibility:  in my lap over the theater, on my schedule not the theater’s, at my pace pausing when I want for as long as I want, giving it as much or as little attention as I want.  Jackson’s treasured 48 fps – as stunning as it might be (initially) – doesn’t address any of that.

According to Truitt, Jackson says, “The entire industry is in some respect waiting to see what happens with The Hobbit,” and I think he’s right.  For going on a decade, the industry has been hoping and praying for some sort of magic bullet to stem the ebbing attendance tide.  Improved CGI didn’t do it, motion-capture didn’t do it, 3-D didn’t do it, and now they’re hoping – according to the filmmaker – 48 fps will do it.

And, it’s entirely possible that, for a little while, it may.  But it doesn’t take long in this tech-saturated environment with its dizzying evolutionary clip for the new to grow old, for dazzle to dull.  Peter Jackson could turn out a prequel the qualitative equal of his LOTR films, but in a form even more visually arresting…only to find that the audience he chased at the rate of 48 fps prefers to wait until they can download it onto their laptops.

Bill Mesce

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