Going Beyond With ‘Star Trek’ And Barco Escape

An interview with Ted Schilowitz, Futurist

Two years ago at Cinequest, one of the screens was adapted to show Barco Escape, a three-screen projection method that reminded me a lot of the Cinerama domes of the 1960s. Ted Schilowitz, the official Futurist for 20th Century Fox and one of the minds behind Barco Escape, admits as much, too. It’s like Cinerama, only doing it better. Much, much better.

Last year at Cinequest, Barco Escape showed two features — The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and Mr. Invincible (a work in progress), directed by San Jose’s own Vijay Vanniarajan. But the jewel in the crown for the process came this past weekend, with Star Trek Beyond opening on almost 200 Barco Escape screens, including Camera 12 in San Jose, the nominal home of Cinequest.

Ted took a few minutes last week to talk with me about the process, getting Paramount on board to go beyond with Star Trek, and what’s coming next. Okay, he wouldn’t tell me too much about what’s coming next, because then it would be a surprise.

Derek McCaw: You’ve worked very closely with Cinequest, and that’s where I first saw Barco Escape. I’ve seen what it can do. With Star Trek Beyond, probably the biggest splash Barco Escape will have made in the general consciousness, who came to who with this idea?

Ted Schilowitz: The first thing I’ll say, which is kind of interesting, is that I’m really glad you saw the stuff at Cinequest, which is one of our favorite film festivals. They’ve been super supportive of the format.

But what I would say without really overstating it is you ain’t seen nothing yet until you’ve seen Star Trek in Escape, because it takes it to a whole new level. It was a collaboration between Barco and Bad Robot. I’m trying to remember where the first reach out came from; it’s been a while. I think they took some notice of it. We talked about it, and we met up with Stan Rosenblatt, who was one of the producers on the movie. He was really motivated and brought it to J.J. Abrams. They started discussing it; they started looking at the format, and they were really intrigued by it. We started building a working relationship last year, and it just sort of rolled into this intense work product of “what could we do with Star Trek Beyond, and would it be a viable candidate for Barco Escape?”

Of course, it ended up being a great candidate because of the type of content it is, and more than anything because Bad Robot and Justin Lin and J.J. and everybody else were so supportive of trying new things and experimenting with a new format for this movie. When you think about the kind of entertainment that it is, it’s Star Trek, it’s futuristic, it has all these elements of exploration. They really wanted to explore the boundaries of cinema, which is what they did with the movie.

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Derek McCaw: It’s about two hours long, but it’s not two hours in the Escape format. It’s about 25 minutes worth of scenes, is that right?

Ted Schilowitz: Give or take, a little over 20 minutes. All the key epic battle scenes, and all the ways that you would expect to not just be at a movie, but go into the experience, is where the effects team at Bad Robot said these are the key scenes that we think would make the most impact. And they were right. We did our final what’s called a QC screening at 3 in the morning in one of our theaters in Los Angeles and we were all just blown away by the final look of everything. It’s really, really fun and just joyous to watch, and we can’t wait for audiences around the world to get a chance to see it in this special format.

Derek McCaw: With these battle scenes and action scenes, what would be in the Barco version that wouldn’t be in the IMAX one, or any other one? Sell my readers on why Barco is the format over IMAX.

Ted Schilowitz: It’s actually interesting, because they’re both related to Barco. The backstory on IMAX is that Barco technology is what powers the IMAX digital projection system. Those are Barco projectors that Barco and IMAX worked together in a partnership to create that experience. That’s actually also Barco in an interesting way, and we’re very proud of that. That experience has set the stage for the premium cinema experience for quite some time, with its very large screen experience.

So take it to the next step of immersion, and what happens when the movie’s not just in front of you, but surrounding you in certain parts. Where certain sequences and certain things that make logical sense to take and blow that stuff out, really bringing you into the intensity of the action. That’s the difference between Escape and a normal movie, even an IMAX movie which is a normal framed movie, just gigantic.

Derek McCaw: Unfortunately last year at Cinequest, I was unable to attend the Barco Escape screenings. I think you showed The Scorch Trials and Mr. Invincible, though I know some of the people involved in that. I’d seen some short films the year before, really playing with… you get to change the language of film. You change the grammar if you use Barco Escape, if it’s being used correctly, because it’s being learned. How exciting is that for you?

Ted Schilowitz: For me personally? It’s fantastic. We joke about my life at Barco and my life at Fox; I’m a futurist at Fox in addition to my role at Barco. My world is just better than a real job. I get to play around and work with wonderful creative people and achieve things that are all about looking forward and creating risk and seeing if it pays off in the the entertainment spheres. It’s been just terrific.

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You mentioned Mr. Invincible, which was a really ambitious project that we had this year at Cinequest. It was a festival feature film, which was made all natively end-to-end in the format, and then we have two other movies that are actively shooting and actually acquiring material with super high-resolution cameras for the Escape format. There’s a movie called 24 Hours To Live, with Ethan Hawke in it. That’s shooting right now in South Africa, and a movie called Recall, which is shooting in Canada. We actually have a lot of Escape theaters in Canada. A couple of chains, Cineplex and Imagine Cinemas, both have theaters that are showing Barco Escape in their local areas in the major cities all over Canada. We have major cities all over the United States.

Derek McCaw: How many screens do you have? I know Camera 12, and I talked to somebody who told me there are a couple in the L.A. area. It’s not a huge market penetration, but then neither was IMAX. I’m sure it will grow. But what is it right now?

Ted Schilowitz: We have a little over 30 screens as a footprint for the opening of Star Trek Beyond. There are more going in every day. I think our theater count gets up to 40 or 50 really quickly for the next couple of movies that come in after Star Trek, which of course will be in the next few months. Then we’ll likely have a hundred by year’s end 2016. The next big movie that we have coming which will be by the director of Need for Speed and Act of Valor, a director by the name of Scott Waugh. He shot natively in the Barco Escape format, a film called Six Below, starring Josh Hartnett.

We just did an early, early test screening of that, and it looks phenomenal. We can’t wait to show people that. It’s all shot in the outdoors of Utah, in the snow; it’s an action adventure movie, a survival movie. There’s a lot of stuff going after Star Trek, but Star Trek is what’s in the moment right now.

What I’ve been telling people is that while yes, there’s not a huge footprint of theaters yet, we’ve got a lot more coming. We’ll be moving from the hundreds to the thousands in the next few years. There is a lot more movie content coming. Right now, if you look at the footprint, the easiest way to do this if you’re a fan of the movie and you want to see it in the Barco Escape format, you can go to the website, Ready2Escape. There’s a landing page there that has a listing of the active theaters in every city. Click on that and it will take you to the exhibitor’s site, like Cinemark or Cineplex. You can pre-order your tickets specifically for the Barco Escape format, because we know it’s going to be very popular.

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But what I would like to tell people is that if you’re in a major population center in the United States, you’re probably within a good driving distance to get to a Barco Escape theater. We have them all over the United States; we have them in the midwest, theaters in Texas, I think six or so in California. We have one in Palm Springs, two in LA, and two in San Francisco area, one in San Jose… There’s one in Minnesota. There’s one in Amsterdam, Belgium, Dubai… the international footprint is growing as well. If you live in the United States, and you’re really interested in this, you’re within an hour’s drive of one, or worst comes to worst, you can fly to one — if you’re really into it. By the end of the year, it will be even easier.

Derek McCaw: Were you a Star Trek fan before?

Ted Schilowitz: I am a huge Star Trek fan. I’ve always been a Star Trek fan since I was a kid, the original Gene Roddenberry series. One of my little moments is that I was one of the guys that helped build the movie camera, the RED camera, and our RED studios, the first season of Star Trek was actually shot at that studio. So I got to stand in the place where they all did it and shot it for the first year. It’s just a fun little tidbit; you kind of feel the energy there. That’s where it all got started. It’s a studio on Cahuenga.

Since then, I’ve been a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation; I’ve been a fan of all the movies, the original movies and this new series. This movie will not disappoint. In the pure energy and storytelling ethos of what Star Trek fans love, it’s got great action and great adventure. It’s got great comic moments, and the Barco Escape experience really enhances those moments. When you’re in these big battle scenes, when you see the Enterprise moving across your field of view, from one side of the one screen to the center screen to the other side screen, it’s just awesome. As a Star Trek fan, you’re definitely going to want to feel that and experience that. You might want to see it in both IMAX and Barco Escape, if you’re like me; you’re going to want to go both ways.

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Derek McCaw: You mentioned you’re a Futurist for Fox. Let me take it back a moment for those who have not experienced Escape. What was the impetus to create this format?

Ted Schilowitz: It’s interesting when you work with a huge technology company like Barco, which is the worldwide market share leader for cinemas for digital projectors. They’re always looking for ways they can enhance and increase the movie going experience, right? The excitement of going to the movies, and find the separation between the home experience and the theatrical experience, because it’s how they make their living, putting these projectors in.

With all that technology and all the smarts of that great Belgian company, we started working on this experimental concept that we called breaking out of the rectangle of movies. Movies started off as a square, then they became a rectangle, then they became a really big rectangle. And the home experience is constantly catching up, or striving to catch up, to give that kind of theater-like experience at home.

So what we worked on is how do you take it fully to the next generation of technology and storytelling as a movie-going experience, where it’s not just in front of you, it surrounds you. So we start to break the metaphor of what a movie is, and we also stand a bit on the shoulders of giants, right? This is not the first time people have tried to do this and have a vision of “there could be something more,” because there was a format called Cinerama. But the technology just wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t ready to deploy at scale and wasn’t feasible.

Now it’s high resolution digital cameras, high resolution digital projectors, and the ability to make everything something that can go scaleable. We can take this experience to every multiplex on the planet. Give people essentially theme park style movie experiences without having to go to a theme park, without having to travel halfway across the country or halfway across the world to see something that’s entertaining at a whole new level.

Derek McCaw: Then I’m going to ask the question — as a futurist, you’ve got to be a step ahead of even what you’re doing right now. So what’s the next step?

Ted Schilowitz: We try to stay three steps ahead. (laughs)

Derek McCaw: Okay. Give me three steps ahead. I don’t know if I can make that leap with you, but I’ll try.

Ted Schilowitz: A lot of this stuff is still secretive, right? In terms of where we go with the format. What I can sort of do is give you some leading indicators of things that are not so secretive. Imagine a day when these screens are so big, so enormous, so immersive, that the theater experience is this ultimate, you can’t even imagine this in any other venue than a large cinema, where you’re sitting with all your friends, a bunch of fans, watching something that plays out that’s so great that the separation is so vast.

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What we’re working on today, in 2016, is actually already pretty advanced. It’s pretty special. But we don’t stop here. We don’t see this as the endgame. We see this as the beginning of a technological and storytelling revolution. As you you start to get more and more theaters, and we start to keep evolving the sophistication of these theaters, then you actually start to get filmmakers from all over the world — as I mentioned, we’re working on projects already all over the world — that really see this as the main deliverable format for the theatrical experience.

And that’s where things really start to get interesting.

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About Derek McCaw
In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric's Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek's voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. You can buy his book "I Was Flesh Gordon" on the Amazon link at the right. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.