A Dallas theater showed Ben Fountain/Ang Lee’s new film in a very cool way. But then, it vanished.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Dallas nightstand that hasn’t felt the weight of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The New York Times bestseller, penned by local author/writing superstar Ben Fountain, is even set in North Texas on Thanksgiving — timehopping between a Dallas Cowboys halftime show and Iraq war flashbacks.
Two-time Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) wide-released the film adaptation last weekend, which he shot as a visual 4K, 3D spectacle captured in an unprecedented, rapid-fire 120 frame rate (most films are 24). He said he designed it this way to draw out the full humanness of Fountain’s main character, war hero Billy Lynn, and to fully immerse audiences in his story.
There are only two 4K theaters in the nation — one in New York and the other in Los Angeles. But here in Addison of all places, AMC Village on the Parkway 9 (which opened two years ago to accusations of hoarding first-run movies) tackled the remarkable task of being The Next Best Thing.
They’d screen it at 2K resolution versus 4K, but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk would play at the accelerated 120 fps and also in Dolby 3D, making it the only other 3D, high frame rate combination in the country. In fact, including those two 4K theaters, Village on the Parkway 9 was the only other 3D offering in the entire United States. And we had it. For a day.
According to the theater’s manager Bruce Perry, this was specifically because of Dallas’ relationship to, and interest in Ben Fountain. Consider it a hero’s homecoming celebration.
But then — after playing just last Friday — AMC higher-ups pulled the thing. There was no publicity surrounding the screening, so nobody even knew they’d lost this opportunity to see what Lee has called “the future of film.”
When I spoke with Perry earlier this week, he didn’t know why the project got canceled. In fact, he’d really put his heart into pulling the thing off.
The Dolby cinema folks had been out the entire previous week, he explained, getting the projectors ready for the workout ahead. They tested the software package. They trouble-shot for latency issues. They were making sure the theater’s gear could handle the rarified abuse it about to take on in order to screen Lee’s work in this groundbreaking, aggressive way.
He did get the opportunity to see Billy Lynn delivered as it was intended before its quick demise. He called the experience “fantastic.”
But according to AMC’s director of corporate communications Ryan Noonan, the theater received unexpected access to the new wizard monster movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the last minute. As far as AMC’s promotion for the BLLHT experiential package, Noonan pointed to an article on Mashable.com and a small blurb in the Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram as proof of “national and local coverage.” (What, you didn’t see those?)
“Only a handful of tickets sold all day,” said Noonan, who cited the failure as a supply and demand issue.
Here’s why this matters: Ang Lee is a celebrated filmmaker who had an artistic vision. And while a lot of big budget films (like wizard movies) are escapist things, it’s very rare that something so technical is designed specifically to both challenge us and enhance its form of storytelling. The high frame rate will look more real than we associate with cinema. The bullets’ ricochets and the football game’s halftime show will feel too close in 3D — unsafe, even. It will mess with our perception and could cause us to consider how we look at things and why we process visual information the way we do.
It’s a potential Rite of Spring moment.
There is so little left to explore in the sensory experience pathway that hasn’t already been paved. So if an acclaimed filmmaker says “I want to show you something. Please give it a chance. I believe it’s the future of film.” I am inclined to give him a shot.
Maybe I would dig it, maybe I wouldn’t — reviews on this one have been heavily mixed. Pan out and look at the market: this makes sense.
Most people are not interested in seeing Fountain’s story in 2D, 24 fps as it’s playing in most of the country: it seems like settling for a “less-than” viewing experience. If you want a war movie, you might just go see Hacksaw Ridge. And if you want a visual bells and whistles thing-a-ma-bob there are superheroes and wizards packing every screen in town.
So when one of the only theaters in the country pulls the experience after one day to cash in on those quick wizard dollars, we, and Ang Lee, are stuck in a catch-22.
Locally, AMC Village on the Parkway 9 tried. They gave it their all. And when we spoke, Perry was even trying to put together a morning screening of the thing, just to make it available so others could see what he had seen. But from a larger, corporate marketing perspective, bigger may not always be better.
If the future of film involves immersive experiences like this, then it should be nurtured by large theater chains that can afford to pull them off. If things like 3D/high frame rates don’t pan out, then only those with deep pockets will be able to know they tried.
Whatever the result, there’s value in being the one who did the thing and who made it available to audiences seeking it out. Relationships with brands (and theaters) are built by providing consumers with unique, personal interactions — not a better bowl of popcorn in a cushier chair. That, they can get anywhere.
There are currently more than a dozen theaters showing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them between downtown Dallas and AMC Village on the Parkway 9. There are no other 120 fps or 3D screenings of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in the state of Texas, where it was written and set.
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