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Why J.J. Abrams is betting on 'immersive cinema' with Star Trek Beyond

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Barco Escape is going to make the Enterprise really, really wide

Barco

Over the past few years movie theaters have been eagerly rolling out new technologies to get people back into theaters, ranging from 3D and laser projectors, to shaking seats that shoot water at your face. This week J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot announced that it’s testing one of the newest innovations, diving into "immersive cinema" with the forthcoming release of Star Trek Beyond. The film will be released in the multi-screen Barco Escape format, a modern take on the kind of ultra-widescreen spectacle made famous by things like Cinerama decades ago.

In the most basic terms, Escape is a panoramic setup that adds two additional screens to the sides of the movie theater frame you’re used to seeing. The result is a movie theater experience with a 270-degree field of view that filmmakers can use for super-widescreen imagery, or treat as three discrete screens, each with their own shots and action, if desired.

"I saw a demo and immediately started talking to J.J."

"I saw a demo of it last year, and immediately started talking to J.J. about it," producer (and Bad Robot technology guru) Ben Rosenblatt tells me over the phone. "When we’re looking for partners, we’re trying to think, ‘Okay, what would be exciting for us creatively, and what would be exciting for audiences to enhance those theatrical experiences?’ We found that in Barco Escape, like we found enhanced value in IMAX, and Dolby with their Dolby Vision theaters and Atmos sound."

Escape currently has a very small footprint compared to something like IMAX — there are just 15 Escape screens in the United States, though Barco will get that up to at least 50 by the time Star Trek comes out in July — with the system getting early adoption from special sequences in the first two Maze Runner films. After watching demos here at CinemaCon, I found it to be an intriguing approach that feels like it’s still searching for the right application. BASE jumping footage shot by Red Bull was breathtaking; the expanded field of view filling my peripheral vision until I felt unmoored from my seat, flying through the air along with the performers. In that sense Escape is closer to something you’d find at an amusement park than a mall multiplex, and it’s easy to see how it would pair well with action films or space adventures. Projects that used the three screens as individual canvases, however, felt significantly more jarring. During a short film revolving around a poker game, I kept turning from screen to screen to see the different footage that was being shown on each of the three screens. Interesting and novel, yes, but not the kind of thing I’d necessarily want to do when sitting down for two hours to be told a story.

I felt unmoored from my seat, flying through the air with the performers

Star Trek Beyond won’t lock the viewer into the Escape format for its entire runtime, but it will feature at least 20 minutes of Escape footage, with much of the ultra-widescreen imagery consisting of expanded visual effects shots (the Barco deal was closed after director Justin Lin had shot the film, though conversations had started in pre-production). But Rosenblatt tells me they do intend to experiment with using extra scene coverage and other unused shots on the side screens, provided it doesn’t pull people out of the movie itself. "The best example is being on the Enterprise bridge when everything’s going crazy. Your main action is going to be on the front screen, but for all of those sequences we have a bunch of coverage of different people at different consoles," he says. "That’s an example where it’s not quite an intentional split-screen. It feels like one environment, one image. So we’re just experimenting with all that stuff, and at the end of the day J.J. and Justin will figure out what feels right and appropriate for the movie."

Filmmakers will need to experiment for formats like Escape to take off

While now somewhat common for blockbusters, the success of natively-shot IMAX sequences in tentpole movies was originally due to filmmakers like Christopher Nolan just trying the format out to learn what did and didn’t work. That same experimentation process will be required if alternative formats like Barco Escape are to really take off in the mainstream. Sometimes that technological evolution can be controversial — Abrams himself was famously opposed to making films in 3D before Paramount forced his hand with Star Trek Into Darkness — but a prominent theme at CinemaCon this year has been that theatrical exhibition has to innovate if it wants to stay ahead of increased competition from home viewing and streaming services. For companies like Bad Robot, that means proactively embracing emerging options when they present themselves.

"In Star Wars there was this great 3D shot of the Star Destroyer. We would look at that shot and go, ‘This is why you paid additional money to go see it in 3D.’ And J.J. got so excited about it," Rosenblatt says. "So I think the truth is that starting with the 3D transformation experience we’ve all been learning how to embrace new technology. And when someone’s offering an experience that we can see being really exciting, we sort of run towards it now instead of backing away from it. I think that’s probably the approach everyone wants to take if our collective mission is to keep people going to the movies."