CinemaCon Exclusive: Catching Up with RealD CEO Michael Lewis

ON has spoken with Michael V. Lewis, CEO and Co-Founder of RealD, one of the main pioneers in the current wave of 3D projection, a number of times back when CinemaCon was still ShoWest. The first time was shortly after the overwhelming success of the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana concert movie, which opened only on 3D screens, then a year later following the similar success of DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D.

3D has come a long way since then, but it’s also started to hit a bit of a wall with James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 starting an avalanche of last-minute poorly converted 3D movies like Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender and Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take that have started to sour moviegoers on paying premium prices for 3D movies of a lesser quality. The backlash may have also already hurt two 3D movies released this year, Drive Angry 3D and Mars Needs Moms, neither which could be saved by the format.

It’s enough to make one wonder where 3D is at right now and whether it’s something that may have blown up a bit too early and too quickly or whether there are still innovations and ideas that could turn things around.

On Wednesday, Lewis and RealD are presenting a special luncheon and panel discussion at CinemaCon featuring heavyweights like James Cameron, George Lucas, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Chris Meledandri addressing some of the issues and rewards with digital filmmaking.

In advance of that, sat down with Lewis on Monday, mere hours after RealD announced they had reached a record number of 15,000 RealD-outfitted theaters globally, to talk about the current state of 3D and where he thinks it’s going, where it can be improved and also addressing a number of the more vocal detractors. As always, Lewis is one of the more articulate spokesmen for the format he helped pioneer. Last time we talked was after “Monsters vs. Aliens” but before “Avatar.” I remember the first time we spoke, you said “Avatar” was going to be the game changer, something Steven Soderbergh confirmed, and it was indeed the game changer. Do you think 3D is in a completely different phase, and do you think it’s in a good place, a bad place or somewhere in between?
Michael Lewis:
I think it’s in a really good place. What has happened post-“Avatar” is what that film did was one, it moved it from a gimmick and a “maybe” to a “must-have” from a consumer standpoint and probably more importantly it triggered and inspired other directors to try and use this new tool set to tell stories. So one of the things I think Cameron has done a really good job of, he’s been able to get directors to come and see and he’s been very open about sharing the process and getting people excited about it. You’ve seen the results of that over the last couple of years. You’ve seen continued experimentation in 3D and you’ve seen improvement in the art, in the technology. You’ve seen, obviously the platform, in our case, has gotten a lot larger, so the economics of doing 3D from a delivery standpoint are very interesting now. It’s a better product, so I think the consumers have responded to that. There’s been obviously some press about, “Oh, 3D’s dying,” and so forth, but the biggest driver to that has really been that relative to the number of films that have been coming out; we haven’t had enough screens to support the number of films. This summer we’re probably going to be in a similar situation. If you look at the release schedule, it’s phenomenal. I think the 15,000 screen count that we announced today is a good down payment, but there are 150,000 screens in the world, so we have some more work to do.

CS: You’re still at 10 percent of the screens globally outfitted for RealD so that’s not bad actually. One of the big issues last year was the difference between Native (filmed) 3D and converted 3D. Studios have been trying to convert movies shot in 2D into 3D and they just haven’t worked well. I know Cameron is converting “Titanic” and the “Star Wars” movies are being converted. Do you think conversion is a viable form of 3D for non-animated movies?
I think it’s improved a lot and we’ve seen demonstrations. In the last year, we saw “Alice in Wonderland” was a conversion. A lot of it depends on how the filmmaker uses it. Is it an element? Is it for the entire movie? Or are we seeing a mixing and matching between conversion and live action 3D shooting? I think what you’re going to see, as much as you’ve seen in visual effects over the last 20 years, the lines are blurring, in other words, it used to be that we could really tell when a visual effect was used. Now, in many cases, you can’t distinguish between a live action shot and a visual effect, because you can simulate it now with computers. I think we’re seeing much the same in the conversion process. I don’t think qualitatively, it’s as good as if you shot natively and you thought it out or you did it after the fact, but I think if you use it as a tool and think about it when you’re doing production, it’s just another tool in the tool box. It’s actually one of the things we’re going to talk about Wednesday with the panel of filmmakers. It should be fun and kinda see what their take on it is because you have Lucas and Cameron, obviously are proponents of shooting in native 3D, and yet they’re doing a conversion. So it’ll be interesting to get their take on it. I think where they will go to is it’s getting better, the process is, everybody is getting smarter about how to shoot 3D and really get the wow factor out of it. Over the next few years we’re going to see those lines blurring and the overall 3D escape, the 3D movie experience, I think is going to continue to improve.

CS: I read a lot of what our readers have to say about 3D and there’s two different camps. Some of them don’t want the 3D to be too extreme, some of them are disappointed if it’s not. You have this fine line, but obviously you can’t please everyone. I’d imagine you want people to think of 3D as a way to pull them into movies rather than as a way to have the movies coming out of the screen.
It’s really a creative decision and my personal view is that it is that ideally, when 3D is done really well, you just get involved in it and immersed in the experience and you forget it’s 3D. That’s the best 3D, so it’s the judicious use of the technology. In some cases, when you try to emphasize a plot point or a story angle, it may be important to magnify the experience and have things coming out at you. In other cases, if you’re looking for more a subtle note, then maybe not so much, it’s more of a window where you’re looking in. So I think what 3D does really well is it magnifies whatever you’re trying to accomplish. I’m actually looking forward to seeing more comedies and more straight dramas. I think there’s a lot that can be done and we’re just now touching the surface of it. So far, it’s been predominantly animation and also big budget, live action movies, but I think there’s an opportunity to as much as color, try different genres and use of technology and see how it works.

CS: A great example of that is the Werner Herzog movie “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” So far, we’ve mainly seen these big budget, IMAX 3D movies, but he basically used the 3D to literally take you inside these amazing caves where no one has ever been. Do you think more docs could be made this way using 3D technology?
Yeah, no question. I think also, we’re starting to see a lot of indigenous filmmaking around the world. We’re in 60-plus countries and we get reports from places in France and in different territories that where we’re in where we’re like, we frankly weren’t aware of that film and it just happened to play on our platform. I think those types of things when it starts moving to experimental and it gets into the hands of especially new filmmakers, we’re going to see some interesting things. Maybe we’ll see what happened in the early 70’s when you had Scorsese and you had that band of directors and it was a very innovative time in the film-era. I’m pretty excited about what I think we’ll see over the next couple of years from hopefully new talent as well as the people already leading the charge.

CS: It’s funny you mentioned Scorsese because I wanted to ask about that. Scorsese’s probably one of our finest living filmmakers and he’s actually doing a 3D film. I’m curious whether you’ve been on set and you have seen how he’s been using it.
I have not. What we have done is supplied him with RealD 3D glasses because he has prescriptions, his very well known–I don’t know what you call them–coke-type glasses are RealD, so he has his own and we were happy to supply them for him. I think what this tells us is that, I don’t think three or four years ago if you had said, “Okay, who are the directors that are going to be doing 3D?” I’m not sure Scorsese would’ve been at the top of the list. Until recently, Spielberg was very resistant to digital. So by having those film directors, I think is a further exclamation point really saying this medium is something really interesting and it’s a new craft and they want to experiment with it. I think it just further validates the premise that this is a fundamental change and it’s not a gimmick and it’s not something that’s temporary.

CS: I was thinking about the Scorsese prescription glasses, has anyone come up with the transition glasses that switch to 3D? Are those coming anytime soon?
Yeah, we’ve done deals with Marchon and Oakley and virtually all the major manufacturers. We expect that this will be available for prescription eyewear. Transition, not now, but we expect it to be available in the future. Right now, you can have them as sunglasses and also as RealD 3D glasses, so you can walk into a theater. Then the other thing of course is, we also announced with Samsung at CES, the RDZ, the passive display, which is essentially the same technology we use in cinema, which allows you to – see those glasses over there? There’s examples of different styles. Our view is that you’re basically going to buy a pair of sunglasses or prescription eyewear and they’re going to be 3D RealD enabled, so it kinda flips the model from, “Oh, I have to buy a pair of glasses,” to “Oh, it’s just another capability, so I can walk into the cinema. I can then come home and watch my television screen.” It’s a very easy, comfortable experience. (At this point, Rick Heineman, RealD’s Vice President of Marketing Communications brings over some examples of the new glasses technology that were sitting on a table nearby.) Here’s some of the other things that we’re doing. We have these clip-ons for people that wear glasses. You can take those. Kids’ eyewear, obviously for different form factors, for different shapes. Probably if you’ve gone to an animated film, you’ve seen them.

CS: I’m curious about how the technology has evolved as well. I’m not sure if there have been that many developments in digital projection, but have there been developments in 3D shooting other than being able to view what you’re shooting in 3D live on set?
Well, break it down into two sections. First, is the capture, which is making the film and second is the delivery. On the capture side, again, early days, it’s certainly gotten easier, the cameras, the footprints have gotten easier, more automated processes in terms of how you focus and determine the 3D and the amount of 3D and the things that go with that. I think from a film standpoint it’s gotten a lot more acceptable. I think people have gotten more comfortable with it. The area that probably needs a bit more work where it’s easier and not so costly is on the TV side. As we start to look at things being shot in 3D for other mediums. In film, you have a lot of resources, from a budget standpoint, so it’s less crucial. As we move into these other faster and smaller budget (films), the 3D’s going to have to get easier and easier to use. I still think that’s in a process of being sorted out. On the delivery side, we’re very pleased. Obviously the 15,000 screens is a big platform now, so the economics work. In terms of improvements, I think the success of our company as we’re constantly innovating… Fast Company (Magazine) has ranked us as one of the top most innovative companies in the world. We take that very seriously, so the last few years, light is probably the biggest issue in 3D, so we introduced the XL system which allows double the amount of brightness of anybody else out there in the marketplace. I think that’s been really, really important. More and more, we’re looking at things, “How do we make that image better? How do we make it more real, more lifelike? How do we continue to get more light on the screen? How do we make it just more bulletproof from a user standpoint?” I think it’s improved since the last time that we’ve spoken. We’re constantly looking for new innovations. We’re now getting live capability into RealD systems so you’ll be able to do live 3D into homes, so that’s an area that we’re excited about. We’re trying things like opera. You probably know that we partnered with The Royal Opera House for “Carmen.” We’re believers in alternative content. We think that the exhibition business needs to move more towards being programmed like a TV station and there are opportunities there and frankly nobody knows who’s going to show up for what, but we’ve just been trying things. We’ve done everything from the BCS Championship game went into our theaters to NBA basketball. We’ve done a little bit of everything just to see how it goes. The opera, for us, was exhibitors and worldwide we had 1,500 screens. Everybody was quite excited about that. I think the future for digital, for the exhibition business, there’s been a lot of negative things about windows and different things, but I just think the outlook is pretty bright.

CS: As far as the 3D detractors out there, I have to ask whether you’ve had any contact or conversations with Roger Ebert? He’s obviously the most respected film critic out there, but he’s also one of the most vocal people against 3D. It’s not even the filmmakers you have to convince anymore, but he’s the guy you have to convert.
If I look back just five, six years ago when we first got started, it was a bit like yelling into the forest and no one was listening. As time has gone on, people have converted over time. I think as more films get made and the quality improves – this is just a better product, period. As the creative side improves, technology improves, delivery improves, all those things, I think it’s going to be very hard for someone to continue with that viewpoint. We may not have it now, but at some point, again, it’s going to be like color and you’re going to go, “Okay.” Maybe a few years, but those are the ones actually that are the most enjoyable, when you can flip somebody who was the most adamant about it. (laughs)

CS: Have you had any direct conversations with him about it?
We haven’t yet. Rick, I’m sure, will work that out.
Rick Heinemann: We had an opportunity for him to see “Carmen,” but he ultimately didn’t end up making it, but his editors and others went and completely loved it and passed on their thoughts.
Lewis: That’s right, it was Chicago, they gave us one of the best reviews we got on the film.

CS: But not from Roger, okay.
Yeah, he didn’t end up making it. We scheduled the screening specifically to make sure that he was able to be there, and he unfortunately couldn’t make it. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that he really understands how 3D can be used as a cinematic tool as opposed to some of his views of it as a genre.
Lewis: I think also too, the types of films that he would gravitate towards really haven’t been made in 3D yet, but that’s not to say that they won’t be, that people won’t start experimenting. We’ve had everybody from Baz Luhrmann to theater. We’ve had all kinds of people that you wouldn’t necessarily think. A lot of people, this is percolating right now. Again, we’ll see some interesting things. We’ll see some new things tried that will be unique to this medium. Again, “Avatar” was the first step in that, now we’re looking for the next one.

CS: Two directors I talked to recently who would be interesting to convert are Gore Verbinski and Zack Snyder. Gore made “Rango,” probably one of the only family films in some time that wasn’t in 3D and Zack was expected to convert “Sucker Punch” to 3D and then changed his mind. Do you think conversions are eventually going to get to the point where filmmakers can be happy with the results, what they see, how they see it converted?
I think a combination of things are going to happen. I think the conversions are going to get better, but I also think shooting natively is not going to be such a… if you haven’t done it before, it can be a bit daunting, especially if you have the pressure of release dates. There are a number of directors on projects that we’re aware of that we were kinda brought into the tent where they were looking to do it in 3D, but a combination of “we have to have this release slot” and “we have this amount of budget” just didn’t coincide with making it in 3D. So maybe next time around, people start thinking about it a bit earlier. Also, it’s a relatively recent phenomena. Films take 18 months, two years in many cases from start to finish, so the economics of the platform that we now have–I mean, last year we were at 5,000 screens, now we’ve tripled the platform in a year. The economics of that are very different, 5,000 screens and now 15,000 are very different if you’re a distributor and you’re releasing your film.

CS: That was a big issue for distributors a few years ago when they were like, “Well, we don’t have enough screens.”
Right, that’s right. It was even worse when we had 200 screens and we were considering whether or not to do “Monster House” (in 3D).

CS: Is RealD still very actively involved on set getting filmmakers comfortable with the technology or have you backed off?
Well, it’s not so much backed off. We’re there as a resource and we provide technology. Cameron’s on our board and that is proved to be very meaningful for us in terms of his thoughts and kinda where the future needs to go, so we can look at different things. But I think what has happened is a lot of that was frontloaded for us. I think the industry has learned a lot and there’s more and more people that can educate others on how to do this, so we’re certainly actively involved. We do everything from AFI to you name it, but fortunately we’ve been able to replicate ourselves and so the entire burden isn’t on RealD now. There are a lot of other people out there to do this.

CS: I think the most night and day thing I’ve seen in terms of 3D was that I was on the sets of the last “Final Destination” movie and the upcoming one and the difference between them having to go to a trailer to a convert it before watching what they’re shooting and having a high definition 3D monitor on set that they can watch while shooting is huge. I think it’s going to be the best-looking 3D movie since “Avatar” because of Steven Quale’s involvement. It was really amazing. So do you have other filmmakers working with you, not necessarily handholding, but just making sure that directors know how to use the technology?
You know, I think our job is, if we can bring them in the theater, spend an hour, say, “Here’s kinda how it worked in the past. Here’s some of the challenges. Here’s how those challenges were dealt with. Here’s who you might like to speak to. Here are people in our company that can help you in terms of technical support, whether it’s visualization systems.” Cameron has, I don’t know, six or seven RealD systems that he uses, and “What can we do to help?” Basically, we’re a resource.

Look for our report on the Digital Panel moderated by Lewis sometime soon.