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J.J. Abrams Says Closing Theatrical Window Is ‘Inevitable’

Variety logo Variety 5/2/2017 Gene Maddaus
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J.J. Abrams loves movies, and he can make a passionate case for seeing them in the theater. But he does not love watching them at a particular theater in his wife’s hometown in Maine.

“There is a theater chain that I’m convinced hates movies,” he told a dinner audience at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday night. “You go there. They’re angry with you. It’s cold. There’s no music. The lights go out when the movie starts — there’s no ceremony. It’s the most uncomfortable seats… You’re convinced there’s something in front of the projector. Meanwhile, most people in that audience have better TVs at home than the image you’re seeing.”

His point was that theater chains should not be surprised if moviegoers would rather stay home. In making those remarks, he was wading into a thorny debate about collapsing theatrical windows and allowing moviegoers the chance to pay a premium for home viewing of first-run films.

“I understand the economic realities of it, and it’s tough,” he said. “At the same time, if they don’t make it worth people’s time, you better not call people to the theater and give them that kind of experience.”

Abrams put in a plug for Screening Room, which is one of several platforms being developed to provide a movie experience in the home.

“People do want to see movies, and can’t always get to the theater,” he said. “It seems like an inevitable thing that movies become available at a premium.”

Abrams spoke alongside Jon Favreau at the dinner panel. Apple executive Eddy Cue moderated, and asked several questions about working with new movie-making technology.

Favreau, who is at work on “The Lion King,” said that he and his crew are using VR modeling to create virtual sets. The trick, he said, is to use advanced technology to create deeper human connections.

“We’re essentially creating a multi-player game,” he said. “My human crew is there with me, in the virtual ‘Lion King’ sets, and we’re there setting cameras and moving cameras in an analog way, and trying to imbue it with a human touch.”

Abrams talked about the challenges of using “previs” technology on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Before the scenes were shot, they created video renderings to show the set designers and artists what they were going for. But he said the result was initially disappointing. The craftspeople created a set that looked “flat and fake” because they were being too faithful to the digital mock-up.

“The set looked horrible,” he said. “It looked worse than any TV set.”

Abrams gave them the instruction to “make it real,” and they fixed it. “It could not have been more real. You could not believe it was plywood.”

“Sometimes the technology can, in the interpretation of the intention, get in the way and be a bit of a hassle,” he said. “Obviously it’s a small price to pay for what it can afford.”

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