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Dolby and AMC team up to make movie theaters awesome again

Diagram of a Dolby Atmos commercial theater installation.
Dolby Labs
If you’ve never heard of Dolby Cinema, that’s quite alright — news of its development managed to slip under the radar somehow. But chances are it’s coming to a theater near you. Today, San Francisco-based Dolby announced a partnership with theater chain AMC to bring Dolby Cinema to 100 theaters over the next decade.

Just what is Dolby Cinema, exactly? It’s Dolby’s branded marriage of dual Christie-made 6P 4K, HDR-capable laser projectors with the company’s Atmos sound format. For the uninitiated, HDR, or high dynamic range, is a method of video and photo capture that combines several images — one overexposed (“blown out”), underexposed (“dark”) and normalized — into a single frame. The result is a more vivid image — brighter whites, darker blacks, and color contrast much more reflective of what we see in the real world. Dolby calls it “Dolby Vision.”

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Atmos, on the other hand, deals entirely with sound. It’s been around in some form since 2012, but has yet to expand beyond a handful of theaters. The proprietary speaker arrangement provides 128 channels of sound across 64 individual sources, some in the auditorium ceiling, for movie makers to work with. It’s impressively immersive – our own Caleb Denison called it “a revolution in theater sound” when he reviewed Atmos three years ago, and thought it had the potential to “rejuvenate the commercial theater business.”

Things obviously haven’t worked out that way, but Dolby’s hoping the renewed push will entice the larger industry. Under the terms of the arrangement with AMC, its premium ETX and AMC PRime theaters will bear the new Dolby Cinema branding at AMC Prime. In addition to the requisite Dolby Atmos and Dolby Cinema components, the refurbished venues will feature reclining seats that vibrate (thanks to embedded subwoofers) in sync with the on-screen action.

The first lucky locations to receive the conversion – Los Angeles, Kansas City, Houston, and Atlanta – will begin offering the new experience in May. Four additional markets will be added in June, with 50 to follow by the end of 2018. (AMC expects to finalize all Dolby Cinema installations by 2024.)

A potential reason for Dolby’s swiftness? Competitors are progressing towards solutions of their own. IMAX is working on a laser projection system, and Technicolor has its own system for HDR.

No matter which technology theaters choose to adopt, though, the potential for enhancing profitability is immense. Prime Cinema commands a $5 premium, and HDR, unlike 3D, doesn’t run the risk of inducing motion sickness or require wearing dark shades.

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