270-Degree Movie Screen: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You?

Bryan Enk
ScreenX
ScreenX

Three dimensions? Been there, done that. How about three walls?

Digital downloads and streaming services, along with large flat-screen televisions and surround-sound stereo systems, are making a strong argument for just staying in for the night. Why pay a bunch of money to sit in a theater with a bunch of rude, texting-obsessed strangers (we're looking at you, Madonna) when you can almost completely recreate the current cinema experience in the privacy of your own home, and with literally thousands of titles available with the click of a button?

It's no secret that the cinema experience must become more unique, exclusive, and immersive — or else it runs the risk of fading away completely. There has to be a reason to go to the movies. Audiences have to get something out of going to a theater, something that they'll miss if they just "wait for the Blu-ray." Imax has become more popular in an attempt to get more butts in theater seats (and at a higher ticket price), as well as 3-D (ditto). And now, a new gimmick has emerged that attempts to make watching a movie even more visually engrossing than just having a loose bolt float toward your face (hat-tip to "Gravity").

A South Korean cinema chain has developed movie viewing that literally surrounds you with the film by incorporating not one but three separate "screens." ScreenX, developed by CJ CGV Co. Ltd., makes use of side walls as additional projection points to create a 270-degree view of the film. Think the "King Kong 3-D" ride at Universal Studios but without anything going on behind you (and sans the rocking tour bus, too, of course).

Watch ScreenX in Action:

Audiences at the Busan International Film Festival were treated last week to the premiere screening of the first film to incorporate this technology, "The X," a 30-minute action thriller by Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon ("The Good, the Bad, the Weird," "I Saw the Devil"). According to Paul Kim, senior producer for ScreenX, the wider scenes were shot using three cameras simultaneously filming different angles — which presents unique challenges, such as where to hide the crew and equipment.

"In a [traditional] shoot, you have one façade. Now we need an entire set for a scene. What was usually one wall now becomes 270 degrees," said Kim to Korea Real Time (via the Wall Street Journal). "It was a lot of trial-and-error."

Mostly error, apparently, as Jee-woon himself called the experience of filming "The X" to be "like hell and a nightmare," according to The Verge — a description that might not exactly inspire other filmmakers to try out the new toy.

CJ CGV currently has 40 screens inside 22 South Korean cinemas installed with ScreenX equipment. They'll next be producing a feature-length film using the technology, with plans to then expand to cinemas in Hong Kong and the U.S.

So … is this a good thing? And will we be seeing this tech in U.S. movie theaters?

"I think it's very likely this will make it to some screens here in the U.S.," says Jerome Courshon, author of "The Secrets to Film Distribution." Courshon warns, however, that if filmmakers aren't filming with the new tech, an uphill battle may be in store: "If there's minimal content being shot for the ScreenX format, it's not going to make sense for an exhibitor to outlay the cost for their theater(s)," he tells Yahoo Movies.

Besides creating challenges for the actual production, ScreenX makes for a radical rethinking of the traditional theater space in order to incorporate its effects. Screening the films requires multiple projectors and a server charged with seamless sunning between images. The side walls need to be painted a dark gray (they aren't actually "screens," as reflections from them would interfere with projecting onto the main center screen). All in all, refitting a theater for ScreenX could cost as much as $185,000, according to Kim.

Still, Courshon thinks ScreenX has a real shot, but it would be a long play. "In the humble way that Imax started, which was for special programs — and shorter than movies — Imax is now also used for major motion pictures. So I see the possibility for ScreenX to eventually get a foothold here in the U.S., even if just in a few locations."

There's also the matter of limited "good seats" in such an environment. As with Imax and 3-D, dead center is the sweetest spot — anywhere else is going to make for an incomplete experience. A potentially distracting one, too, as several audience members were disoriented in trying to follow the fast-paced action of "The X" across three screens, according to WSJ. And Courshon points out that with ScreenX "anyone from about halfway in the audience to the front won't get the full experience."

It's unclear how much a ScreenX experience would cost per ticket if brought to the U.S., but Courshon estimates tickets wouldn't be astronomical in price. "For something like ScreenX ... they can't be much more than what it costs to see an Imax film," he says. "If taking a date, that could be a $100 evening for 2 (with parking and concessions) — and doesn't even include dinner. That's not something most Americans can afford today."

SlashFilm makes a good point that while ScreenX is being marketed as a sort of "horizontal Imax," it really isn't new technology. It's something of an expanded version of Cinerama, which simultaneously projected images from three synchronized projectors onto a deeply curved screen to present a 146-degree view. Somewhat appropriately, Cinerama was developed in the 1950s, when theater chains starting facing heavy competition from television. Unlike 3-D, which has had a mostly successful resurgence in recent years with films like "Avatar" and most recently "Gravity," Cinerama was really just a flash in the pan as its technical challenges and impracticalities overwhelmed the neat-o gimmick.

Is ScreenX destined to be "the new Imax," or will its limitations ultimately render it a noble but failed experiment? It's way too early to tell, but for now, it's certainly an intriguing technique that could prove to be just the thing needed for cinema to re-engage the audience.