Cinemas may soon replace the 125-year-old projector screen with gigantic TVs

Another relic of cinema’s golden age that may be on the way out.
Another relic of cinema’s golden age that may be on the way out.
Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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In the not-too-distant future, theatergoers may be watching movies on huge TVs instead of the movie projectors they’re used to.

Samsung recently unveiled a large LED* screen—like the TVs in many houses—for movie theaters. Previously, only film projectors were equipped to play films in cinemas that nowadays usually use sheets made of white vinyl.

But the South Korean tech giant’s new digital 4K-resolution screens reportedly comply with guidelines from the Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture by movie studios Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros. that sets the standard for technical performance, reliability, and quality in digital cinemas. That means it’ll be ready to play cinema-quality videos at launch.

The 34-foot-wide screens are a little smaller than the standard cinema screen, which is about 45 to 65 feet wide and as tall as 30 feet. (IMAX screens are even bigger, at 72 feet wide and as high as 98 feet tall.) But it’s supposed to have a better picture.

Samsung said its LED screen has a strong contrast and a peak brightness that is nearly 10 times higher than the standard cinema projector. There’s also less upkeep. Projectors have to work harder to achieve the same luminance as TVs. The bulbs dim and need to be replaced over time. And the contrast on a projector is dictated by how dark the projector room is.

But projectors tend to be quite easy on the eyes in a dark room like a theater, because of their low light output.

Samsung’s new screens, combined with a trend toward decking out high-end theaters with recliners, pillows, blankets, and table service to appeal to people who are willing to splurge on a night out, could make cinemas feel a lot more like your living room. Then what’s the incentive to shell out the $9 or so it costs to see a movie today when you can watch on a similar screen and couch at home?

People go to cinemas to immerse themselves in film—and theaters still do that better than almost anywhere else. There are no interruptions. No reminders of your outside life that could pull you out of that world (unless you ignore the theater’s many warnings and leave your mobile phone on). And you’re embarking on the journey with a community of like-minded viewers.

The new screens could potentially enhance that experience.

Samsung began teasing the screens in March at CinemaCon in the US, but is only now showing them publicly, No Film School reported. Samsung has not yet said how much the new screens will cost, though, so it’s unclear whether they’ll be a cost effective alternative. Digital cinema projectors can cost tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the make and model, plus the cost of the screen and installation.

Flat-panel screens tend to be more fragile than projector screens. And, as Vulture pointed out, they may be harder to install and repair, as well. It might be better for filmmakers, though. Playing a movie on a screen that’s similar to the one the film is finished on in post-production, which tends to be a flat-panel screen these days, allows filmmakers to see how the movie will look to audiences before it’s released.

*Let’s talk screens. LEDs are a subset of the LCD displays that were invented in the 1960s and became the standard for TV in the late 2000s. Like standard LCD TVs, LED displays use liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels to illuminate the screen. But instead of being backlit with cathode fluorescent lamps, like the older LCDs, LEDs use smaller, more efficient light-emitting diodes (hence, LEDs) to illuminate the pixels. That makes for a better picture.

LEDs are still one of the most common types of displays used in tech today, but they’re giving way to new technology like OLEDs, or organic LEDs, which are used on newer smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and, rumor has it, the next iPhone. OLED pixels produce their own light, and do not need to be backlit like LEDs. AMOLED displays, which activate each pixel more quickly, are also being used in newer smartphones and watches.