All week long in Las Vegas, the National Association Of Theater Owners (motto: “No, the other NATO”) has been holding its annual CinemaCon, giving studios and equipment designers an opportunity to show off their latest products to the people who actually exhibit movies. Yesterday, the technology company Barco—specialists in “visualization solutions”—showed off its new “Escape” screening system, which adds a left and right screen to the main screens in movie theaters, creating a wraparound effect. Barco reportedly demonstrated the Escape system using Wes Ball’s short film “Ruin,” and 20th Century Fox is planning to make Ball’s upcoming feature The Maze Runner available in Escape-equipped houses, beginning with Fox’s own Zanuck Theater in Los Angeles.
This news broke around the same time that Facebook announced its acquisition of the virtual-reality headset maker Oculus Rift, which Variety editor Andrew Wallenstein suggested might be a stepping-stone toward VR becoming more of an integral part of the moviegoing experience. Two questions spring immediately to mind, regarding both of these pieces of news: 1. Are theater owners ready for more technical upgrades, so soon after adding bigger screens, digital projection, and 3-D? 2. Do audiences actually want this?
I can’t speak to the first question, because I’m not a theater owner. My feeling is that if the NATO members genuinely feel threatened by the defection of younger audiences to newer forms of entertainment, then they’ll have to keep adjusting in some way, whether it’s to court that audience with gimmicks or to make moviegoing more of a boutique experience for older viewers. As to the second question, I can only say that I don’t have any special desire to have movies become more artificially “immersive.” As with 3-D, I can imagine some talented artists making good use of VR and/or wraparound screens, and I’m not such a snob that I can’t imagine having a good time at a dopey blockbuster action movie showing on three screens simultaneously. But as to it becoming the norm? I’m not sure I see the advantage.