As cinema attendance drops, director Ang Lee taps technology to lure fans back to theatres

When’s the last time you went to a movie?

Last week?  

Last month? 

Chances are you’re not going as often as you used to. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of film tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada has dropped from 5.25 per person annually in 2002 to 3.5 in 2018. 

Just think of what it takes to get you to the movies these days.   

Yes you, with your comfy couch, state-of-the-art soundbar, and multiple streaming subscriptions.

Watch the trailer for Gemini Man:

Speaking earlier this year on the panel “The Big Screen: Have rumours of my demise been greatly exaggerated” venture capitalist Matthew Ball suggested going to the movies is becoming like a trip to live theatre — an expensive experience reserved for special occasions. 

As home entertainment options increase, filmmakers are in a technological arms race to provide audiences with experiences they can’t have on those comfy couches. 

Ang Lee prepares to direct an action sequence with Will Smith on the set of Gemini Man. For scenes where Smith would interact with the younger version of his character a second actor was hired as stand in. Animators later replaced the stand in with the digital creation. (Paramount Pictures)

Enter director Ang Lee and his new action film Gemini Man

Since The Life of Pi in 2012,  Lee has been trying to marry spectacular storytelling style with cutting-edge technology. His last three films were shot in 3D and both Gemini Man and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk featured high frame rate or HFR projection. 

Movies are typically captured at 24 frames a second, due in part to the standards for celluloid film cameras.

When the industry went digital, filmmakers such as James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Ang Lee started experimenting with filming at higher rates. 

Watch CBC’s report on The Hobbit and High Frame Rate 3D filming:

Peter Jackson, known for translating Tolkien’s world to film, is back in theatres with The Hobbit. But his latest movie is based on new technology — High Frame Rate 3D — that has divided early audiences of critics and insiders. Eli Glasner reports. 3:02

Before Gemini Man, Hollywood’s biggest leap into HFR was for The Hobbit trilogy which was displayed at 48 frames a second, twice the normal rate.

Ironically, the clarity of the image made The Hobbit’s special effects resemble something like a high school production

For Gemini Man, Lee is once again pushing technological boundaries. The movie was captured at 120 frames a second. In Canada, it will be offered in 3D at 60 frames per second and also in 2D at the standard 24 frames per second. 

Crystal clarity or just a giant HD demo reel? 

So, what does a film running at 60 frames a second look like? 

Stunning. It just doesn’t look like a movie. 

There is a crystal clarity to the image that strips away the cinematic sheen we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s almost like looking through a piece of polished glass or watching the world’s greatest HD demo reel.  

When it comes to HFR and 3D, Ang Lee is a believer.

Critics complained about the format for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But Lee told CBC News: “It’s the logical next step for movie viewing.” 

Lee gets excited talking about it, leaning forward describing the “life-like immersive images” and how it makes the audience feel “like you’re more into it.”  

But just as audiences balked when silent movies converted to sound, viewers are still adjusting to Gemini Mans visuals. 

Will Smith meet Will Smith Jr. 

Critics have complained about headaches and compared the visuals to a soap opera. Besides the 3D high frame rate technology, Gemini Man also offers audiences another technological gimmick: Will Smith acting against a digital version of himself.

In the film, Smith plays a hit man on the run who discovers the person pursuing him is a younger clone named “Junior.” 

Will Smith as ‘Junior’ in Gemini Man. Smith performed the Junior sequences on a performance capture stage, with a body suit and facial camera,. (Paramount Pictures)

Working with visual effects artists, animators captured Will Smith’s performance and recreated a younger version using Smith’s earlier roles in Six Degrees of Separation, Bad Boys, Independence Day and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as reference points.

The result is a digital performance that alternates between eerie and emotional. The challenge for Lee’s digital creation is competing against our memories of the real Will Smith.   

Ang Lee shares why he’s using technology in his new film as a tool to tell deeply human, emotional stories. 22:36 

But the Oscar-winning director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain is used to taking on difficult projects.

Speaking with CBC Radio’s Tom Power on Q, Lee talked about the pattern in his career, “I constantly fall into this trap, doing something that’s seems to be very seductive to me, and then it gets larger than I can handle.”  

Lee isn’t alone in looking for ways lure audiences. For the shrinking pool of directors who make original, big-budget blockbusters, increasingly there has to be a gimmick. 

Watch the trailer for 1917:


Take the upcoming First World War epic, 1917. Directed by Skyfall’s Sam Mendes, the film follows two soldiers crossing enemy lines filmed in a series of uninterrupted tracking shots.  

In the promotion trailer, the filmmakers lovingly describe the immersive qualities of the experience.

There’s a world of difference between the cutting edge technology used in Gemini Man and the classic long takes of 1917; but the end result is the same: giving audiences a reason to watch. 

For Lee, faced with bigger TV screens and streaming options, the only option is to innovate. 

“We we’ve got to outdo the media to get [the audience] back in,” he said. “This is only an experience you can get in a theater and nowhere else. You have to buy a ticket. You have to hire the baby sitter and come to a big black box and share that experience.”