Peter Jackson says the negative reaction this week over new technology he’s using to shoot The Hobbit won’t hold him back, and he hopes moviegoers will give it a try and judge for themselves.
“Nobody is going to stop,” he said. “This technology is going to keep evolving.”
When Warner Bros. showed off 10 minutes of footage this week at CinemaCon, the annual convention for theater owners, many attendees complained that this version of Middle Earth looked more like a movie set than the atmospheric, textured world seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
There was a lot of love for Jackson’s storytelling — the scenes of young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, from the British version of The Office) battling a trio of goblins, and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf exploring the tombs of the now-reanimated wringwraiths, received universal praise. Complaints only centered on the technology used to capture and project the footage.
Jackson hopes critics of the format will change their minds when they see the finished film, but notes that it will also be available in traditional formats in many theaters.
“At first it’s unusual because you’ve never seen a movie like this before. It’s literally a new experience, but you know, that doesn’t last the entire experience of the film–not by any stretch, [just] 10 minutes or so,” Jackson tells EW. “That’s a different experience than if you see a fast-cutting montage at a technical presentation.”
So what does he say to people who just decide they don’t like the glossy new look of the format he’s using?
“I can’t say anything,” Jackson acknowledges. “Just like I can’t say anything to someone who doesn’t like fish. You can’t explain why fish tastes great and why they should enjoy it.”
Right now, every second of a motion picture is made up of 24 images, or “frames,” but Jackson is shooting his two Hobbit films at 48 frames per second, which he says creates a more lifelike picture and will make 3-D less of a strain on the eyes.
When it debuts Dec. 14., The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be the first major performance for 48-frames, while this week’s showcase was just an audition. Jackson says those who remain unconvinced should wait to see more before closing their minds completely. “There can only ever be a real reaction, a truthful reaction, when people actually have a chance to see a complete narrative on a particular film,” he said.
Some representatives from smaller theater chains, unwilling to speak on the record, grumbled privately about the cost of upgrading their projection equipment (which could be thousands of dollars per screen) to accommodate something they fear could attract a backlash from customers.
Jackson, however, says he noticed one thing in the press: Critics seemed to like it more as the show went on.
“A couple of the more negative commenters from CinemaCon said that in the Gollum and Bilbo scene [which took place later in the presentation] they didn’t mind it and got used to that,” Jackson says. “That was the same 48 frames the rest of the reel was. I just wonder if it they were getting into the dialogue, the characters and the story. That’s what happens in the movie. You settle into it.”
The Hobbit has become the touchstone in a larger conversation happening within the film industry about how to make movies more immersive and appealing.
While Jackson and Avatar‘s James Cameron are advocates, not all directors are sold on the 48 frames format. Ang Lee – who was at CinemaCon to show footage from his upcoming 3-D epic Life of Pi – told EW he hadn’t seen The Hobbit presentation but worries that 48-frames may be too much of a good thing. “I have mixed feelings. I don’t think 48-frames solves everything. Each time you solve a problem you can bring in others — because you make the problem look more clear, maybe, ” he said with a laugh. “It takes time. It sounds like a good idea, but I’m a little skeptical.”
Despite the mixed reaction, Jackson and Warner Bros. did not lose any major support from exhibitors they need to get this format in front of audiences. Large exhibitors remained committed to at least giving 48-frames a try, based on Jackson’s track record as an innovator. Amy Miles, CEO of Regal Entertainment Group, said she hoped to upgrade between 2,500-2,700 of the company’s 3-D projectors to show films at 48 frames per second.
“At end of the day, we have to do everything we can to widen that experience gap between what you see in the theater and what you see in the home,” Miles told EW. “Bringing the option to our customer is what we’re doing. Ultimately, let’s be clear, that’s who decides what’s going to be successful going forward.”
Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., suggested audiences may just need time to get accustomed to the new presentation. “It might not initially be accepted by all, but eventually [Jackson] feels it will be and eventually it can only improve,” he said.
Fellman also pointed out that some of the Hobbit footage was unfinished. In a pre-taped intro, Jackson warned the audience that many visual effects were not yet in place. Fellman said the rawness of the material may have been at least partly responsible for the negative response. “I think by the time he presents this film finished, the majority of moviegoers will accept it and be pleased,” Fellman said.
The studio won’t have to bet its entire box office earnings on the foundation of 48 frames per second. The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey will be available in six different ways: 3-D, 2-D, and IMAX 3-D, each one in both the traditional 24-frames style and the new 48-frames version.
“There will be plenty of options out there,” Fellman said.