Source: Produced By Magazine
Written by: Michael Cioni
In his book The Tipping Point, social scientist Malcolm Gladwell outlines how a few small and seemingly disconnected changes can work together to eventually create a huge effect in a marketplace.
I believe there is growing evidence that film and television are heading toward a tipping point of major change that is being fueled by emerging consumer distribution technologies. Because much of the power associated with content creation is linked to distribution platforms, changes in these platforms open avenues for new content creators. Unlike traditional broadcast or theatrical distribution, these technologies can be adopted by consumers more rapidly and enable the content of higher quality. Specifically, there are three new emerging areas that producers should begin to explore as they plan for future-proofing and competitive advantages in the next era of the distribution landscape.
The three emerging areas are:
UHD: Ultra High Definition displays, which have a resolution of approximately 4K.
HDR: High Dynamic Range, which simultaneously shows the darkest blacks and brightness levels capable of being 10 times brighter than previous displays/projection.
WCG: Wide Color Gamut, which shows a significantly broader array of realistic colors than possible within digital cinema projection or high definition.
As of today, no distributor has mandated that you need to master content using all three of those formats. Some have required one or two, but over the next 36 months, you will see a few production and distribution leaders that will require mastering in all three of these specifications. Not only will this improve the future-proof appeal of these projects, but they will visually appear much more vivid and realistic, which will contribute to shifting the balance of power away from incumbent distribution platforms.
Since UHD is relatively new, and many people haven’t even seen HDR or WCG material yet, you might be asking yourself just how significant these specs really are. At Light Iron, we recently conducted a focus group to show these display technologies to some people who also had never seen them before. We recorded this focus group and published the video, which you can view on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/lightiron/focusgroup).
The first thing people ask when they hear about this test is, “What was the most significant thing you discovered?” The answer might surprise you! The most common reaction from the focus group participants was a genuine expression of joy. You could see how happy they were by the looks on their faces as they watched UHD/HDR/WCG content, and you could hear their excitement in the comments afterward. If you knew that there were three technical improvements you could make to your next project that would bring that kind of joy to your audience, would you do it?
Obviously, there are many creative factors that you already balance to engage with audiences: script, director, cast, crew, production design, etc. But in the same way that producers have to consider budget and scheduling to maximize all those elements, considering an advanced form of the mastering and exhibition platforms alongside creative elements can make a big difference. I call the approach of combining technical superiority with creativity— “technative.”
For the focus group experiment, we deliberately recruited film students as our test subjects, because presumably, they will be the content creators of the future. We hypothesized that if we could determine their preferences toward UHD, HDR, and WCG, then we could predict how they would be inspired to use these tools to create tomorrow’s movies and tv shows.
After demonstrating the same high-quality content in HD followed by UHD, we finally showed the same content on a new OLED display that was capable of UHD, HDR, and WCG. Their reactions were uninhibitedly positive, with comments such as “really amazing,” “true colors,” “true black,” “more realistic,” and “super bright whites.” One participant noted this consumer TV meant for the home had a “cinematic quality where you’re sort of watching the image in a magical way.”
Nearly all participants raised their hands when asked if they would be willing to pay more for the UHD/HDR/WCG display. This is, of course, what consumer electronics manufacturers are after each time they develop next-gen TVs. It’s natural to get frustrated by the way manufacturers’ sales goals affect the content creation industry, like the tail wagging the dog, but there is a real opportunity to get excited by the way viewers respond to these new technologies. Why not have their enthusiastic reactions be experienced while watching the shows you produced?
There’s a sobering truth that just a few years ago our professional acquisition and mastering tools were significantly more advanced than the displays on which audiences consumed content at home. For example, when we shot exclusively on film, consumers didn’t have 35mm projectors at home, so the TV experience was a significant downsample. As optical discs and HD TVs developed, Blu-ray eventually bridged much of that gap. But now, with UHD and HDR TVs being almost the exclusive buying options at any given Best Buy, consumers have the opportunity for a visual experience that is actually better than the specs in which 98% of content is being mastered or even, in some cases, acquired.
It’s safe to assume that audiences will continue to become more accustomed to higher quality images in the home and that tomorrow’s filmmakers will become more accustomed to creating content with these higher quality specs. Because of this foreseeable pattern, distributors who recognize how to leverage the benefits of UHD, HDR and WCG have the unique opportunity for maximum impact. Unfortunately, this isn’t easily adopted by exhibitors with large infrastructures, such as theaters or traditional broadcasters, which would require massive worldwide hardware upgrades.
In contrast, it’s relatively easy for OTT companies to upgrade their delivery services without any hardware as bandwidth increases and compression options improve. This means that Amazon, Netflix, Google, Hulu, iTunes and related distributors are primed to take over the power and influence previously held by the major and mini-major distributors.
Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of the “tipping point.” Consider the music industry. If you had asked Sam Goody or Tower Records about their top threat 12 years ago, they would never have listed Apple. That’s because the iPod didn’t take over the music sales industry in a vacuum. Apple leveraged an environment created by the rise of early T1 internet lines at universities and the Napster-fueled rise in popularity of on-demand access to single songs to develop and promote a product that spread like wildfire.
Or think about a more recent example. Remember three years ago when you’d never heard of Über and now everybody uses it? Here in Los Angeles, people who never took taxis before can’t seem to live without Über. How does something like that happen so fast? It’s because Über leveraged the rise of smartphones, the consumer trickle down of military-created GPS technology, cloud-based mapping technologies and the convenience of app stores to become a nearly overnight sensation.
Gladwell concludes in his book that we are creatures of graduation. That is, we prefer things to change gradually over time. But technology is governed by a much faster cadence than most of us are accustomed to. Based on this predictable cadence, our industry is poised for a dramatic shift over the next three to five years. As OTT companies leverage audiences’ interest in higher quality displays, they will become the predominant distribution platforms, further increasing the demand for UHD/HDR/WCG content—even on mobile devices. As an informed producer, you have the opportunity to monetize your content well into the future by not only adopting these technical specs today but being a “technative” advocate yourself.