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Why ‘The Hobbit’ may not look the same in every US cinema

With the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated Hobbit trilogy less than two months away, theater owners are having to come to terms with the fact that, while the movie will be released in a format that allows it to be projected at the increased frame rate of 48 frames per second, that enhanced release will be limited to a small number of theaters in the US, based around two particular theater chains.

Warner Bros. had announced last Spring that it planned to make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey available at the increased rate – The traditional frame rate for movie projection is 24 frames per second – to excitement from the theater industry in general. However, that excitement has paled when it was revealed that only 400 screens in the US will be receiving this edition of the movie, with the remainder receiving a 24 frame per second edition (For context, it was estimated that there were 39,580 movie screens in total in the US last year).

The limited release for the advanced format is being described by the studio as “a platform release” that utilizes what is called HFR 3D technology present in mostly Regal and AMC theaters, upsetting many theater owners. According to Michael Karagosian, president of cinema consultancy MKPE Consulting, “Several manufacturers set aside profitable projects to switch resources to supporting HFRs for Hobbit,” without realizing that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show the improved version. Amongst those manufacturers, Sony Electronics, whose Senior Vice President of Digital Cinema Solutions Gary Johns admits “We put the money into it,” before adding that although “the opportunity for sales is diminished,” he “think[s] we will get there. I’m sure it will be back. We think HFRs is great thing.”

The reason for the limited release, according to Warners, is that it wants the movie to be seen in the best light possible, which means taking time to ensure that the technology has been properly installed. “We want to make sure we do it properly and make sure the public sees it in its best form,” Warners President of Domestic Distribution Dan Fellman is on record as saying. “We are very committed to this. [High frame rates are] the most important change in exhibition, probably since the introduction of sound.”

The idea that the technology may not be up to standards everywhere isn’t an entirely fallacious one, according to Dolby’s Senior Director of Cinema Product Marketing Matt Cuson: “Some technical issues have come up in testing and not all the devices did things as well as Warners had expected,” he said, adding that “It’s a high profile fail, should you fail. Nobody wants that.”

The takeaway for fans interested in seeing Jackson’s latest epic as close to the way the director intended it, perhaps, is that they should pick their theaters carefully when the movie is released December 14. Otherwise, who knows what treats you’ll miss?