How Do You Sell a 48 fps Movie?

If you were plugged in to film fandom at all last week, you’ll know that the big story was all about a special screening of footage from The Hobbit. But the chatter wasn’t about how awesome the material was. Surprisingly, bloggers condemned the footage because it was shown in 48 frames per second, the now-fabled format that was supposed to be the “future of cinema”. Rather than the promised immersion and depth, writers found the footage uncomfortably realistic and distracting.

Peter Jackson responded that you need to see more of the footage in 48 frames to “get used to it”, and that once you do, there’s no going back. My question is: even if the 48 fps had wowed the reporters at the screening, and even if it works out in the finished film, how do you sell the format to the average moviegoer? With 3D as controversial as it is, I’m baffled about how production companies will market the value of such a technical part of filmmaking.

The problem here lies in the difference between movie fanatics and the everyday people who go to the cinema. For that reason, some of you might be already confused by the idea of 48 fps footage. So let me explain: Most films are projected at 24 frames per second, meaning for every second of film you watch, 24 static frames have run past your eye to create the illusion of movement.

48 fps projection doubles that ratio, meaning we perceive less of the “flicker” and imperfections in the film when it's projected at 24 fps. Most of us don’t even notice those flaws, because we instinctively train ourselves to ignore it when we see motion pictures for the first time.

Filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron are the major pushers of the 48 fps format, saying it’s like sitting in a theatre and looking through a movie screen-sized hole into the outside world. Whether that’s true or not is apparently up for debate. When I first heard about 48 fps, I believed Jackson – after all, he’s shown many times over how trustworthy he is behind the camera. Now with the reaction from the press, I’m not so sure.

The core question is whether or not 48 fps can become the revolution in moviemaking we thought it might be. Other filmmakers are free to try it out in their movies, but I think it’s going to be very difficult to explain the merits to the public. I've already had to take multiple paragraphs to explain the concept in this blog post, and I’m pretty sure that kind of length doesn’t fit in trailers or posters.

That leads to whether the technology behind a movie even belongs in its marketing campaign. A lot of us laughed when the trailer for Resident Evil: Afterlife boasted that it was shot on “the same cameras used in Avatar”. The movie industry doesn’t sell gadgets with fancy features; it sells stories and experiences. It’s hard for anyone to lose themselves in a story when they’re thinking about the moving parts, and the same will be true of 48 fps films.

As revolutionary as 48 frames per second is, I’m beginning to doubt whether we’ll ever see it achieve the kind of overnight, widespread use that we’ve seen with 3D. Very few moviegoers care about things like fps, and framerate certainly doesn't have the in-your-face gimmickry that 3D does. I already see people's eyes glaze over when I try to explain it out loud.

The format will likely join the list of cinematographers' “tricks for making a very pretty movie”, alongside elements like Steadicam or IMAX footage. Maybe it will play a hand in deciding the winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar (one of the perpetual “what’s that one for?” awards).

At least, that’s my hope. If 48 fps is as jarring as some film bloggers say, maybe the format could crash and burn, and even hurt the reception of what’s arguably the biggest movie of 2012, the first installment of The Hobbit. After all, a lot of us are already getting tired of slagging 3D, and if there’s one thing Hollywood likes, it’s the fall of someone (or something) filled with promise.


What do you think about the negative buzz around 48 fps movies? Can it define the next wave of moviemaking? Or it is too technical to grab the public's imagination? Leave your thoughts in the comments section, and browse through some of my other film-related articles:


Is it the End of Moviegoing as We Know It?

Why The Bourne Legacy Won't Disappoint Fans

Or you can check out some of my recent reviews:

Wrath of the Titans | John Carter | ChronicleThe Grey