GigaOM interview with Hollywood titan James Cameron

James Cameron and his longtime partner Vince Pace have been working together on 3-D for years, but with their Cameron Pace Group, the two are hoping to revolutionize the 3-D video market.

I got a chance to sit down with Cameron and Pace at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas this week, and asked about the future of 3-D in the home, how their effort is making 3-D accessible to other directors and production teams, and how the industry overcomes its chicken-and-egg problem: How do you get consumers interested in 3-D TV while getting broadcasters on board with shooting in 3-D?

GigaOM: So can you tell me how Cameron Pace Group came together? Why did you decide to productize this and make this available to other partners?

James Cameron: Vince and I worked together for the first time in 1988. We got together in 1999 to start building an HD and 3-D system. We went to Sony, Panavision and different partners… We made our first system in 2000, and we first started using it for documentary films, primarily. Vince started to pursue sports and music, that sort of thing in ’03, ’04. Then the movie stuff started to take off and we first served up the first features – they were the only features being done in 3-D.

It just snowballed from there. When I came off the end of Avatar, we decided to make it more of an official partnership and we announced that last year. But really, we’ve never been off-track from trying to grow the 3-D market and grow the technology.

Vince Pace: During that time, it wasn’t a commitment to do a film, but to create a filmmaker’s tool. It wasn’t focused on a singular need. From the very beginning of the relationship headed toward this, it was really about, ‘How do we provide this to the industry to get this resolved?”

James Cameron: I think it held us back for a while, because people thought I was building this for myself and it wasn’t really available. I was like, ‘No, no, no. We’re building this industry – it doesn’t help me to make a 3-D film if there are no 3-D theaters.’

The two of us can’t make enough content to twitch the needle. We’ve got to be the enablers for everybody else. We’ve got to put the tools in their hands. There are all these perceived barriers to entry for people that are established content makers looking to shift to 3-D. We’re not really interested in people who’ve only done 3-D and are trying to grow that. We want to go to the A-listers, the established people and get them to transform into 3-D makers as painlessly as possible.

GigaOM: Why are you so passionate about 3-D? What is it about the technology?

James Cameron: It’s so intuitively obvious to me that it’s the way entertainment needs to be consumed, that I’m almost shocked when I have to back up and explain it. I find it’s better to just say, ‘Come look at this – isn’t that cool?’ Because if you think it’s cool, chances are other people think it’s cool. So we just stumbled off and started doing it.

Well guess what, people did think it was cool, and the two highest-grossing films in history, both of them over $2 billion, are both 3-D films. Titanic just recently joined the club, but it just recently passed $2 billion as well as a result of that.

GigaOM: So tell me about that. I know so much of your focus has been on shooting in native 3-D and you’ve been critical of others who have shot in 2-D and then retrofit movies to be 3-D. Why do that with Titanic?

James Cameron: There are two very distinct categories there. There are movies that are done, and are out and we love them and we’d love to see them in 3-D and the only way to do that is to convert.

Then there are movies that are starting now, and they want it to be in 3-D, because they want the extra revenue. And the studios believe that these are tentpole movies–they’re big entertainment films and big effects films–so they should be in 3-D, but they’re not willing to do it right.

At that point, they’ve got a choice. They can shoot native, or they can shoot 2-D and convert. I’m adamantly against shooting in 2-D and converting. But I’m certainly very much in favor of converting films that are already done. You don’t have a choice on those. You don’t have a choice on Raging Bull or The Godfather. You have a choice with Spiderman 5.

I see the same dumbass decision being made over and over. They get to that precipice and it’s all too scary. It’s just all too hard. Well, the only reason it’s scary and hard is that they don’t understand it and they haven’t asked the right questions. Usually they’re so afraid of asking the right questions and looking like an idiot. Everyone’s afraid of looking like an idiot. That’s what it boils down to.

So you’ve got a director that’s directed 20 films and a producer that’s produced 40 films, and they don’t want to come in and be a dumbass and ask one stupid question. They’re going into a new area called 3-D. And then you have all these 3-D practitioners on the other side telling them that they don’t know anything about 3-D and they absolutely need 3-D experts to be there.

That’s why Vince and I have completely turned that around. We say, ‘You don’t have to know anything about 3-D. Just do what you do. Do what you do, and do it with our toolset, and you’re going to be fine.’ You can’t add value in one area and take it away in another. That’s what filmmakers are afraid of. They worry that they’re going to have to compromise their style to shoot in 3-D.

What I’m saying is, keep 100 percent of your style. Give up nothing. Add 3-D to it. And only add 3-D when it makes sense. If you don’t like it for a shot, or you don’t like it for a scene, you turn it down. 3-D is like music. You don’t run music wall-to-wall throughout a movie. You bring it in, you take it out. You are in control, as a filmmaker you are aesthetically in control.

GigaOM: When you look at the TV market – for theatrical it obviously makes sense. But you talk about the chicken-and-egg problem in the living room. There’s not enough content, but there’s also not enough people with 3DTVs. How do you solve that?

James Cameron: We’ve got another missing piece, which is – there’s only DirecTV (s DTV) and Comcast (s CMCSA) carrying 3-D and that’s only on a limited basis. The TV sets are well out there – there’s good penetration with the sets. And most people buying TVs are buying them with 3-D like it or not at this point.

I think that we’ve got to reach a certain level of the amount of content. And I also think it has to be about the type of content. Sports works because people tune in to watch the specific games that they want to see. I think scripted dramatic will work because people tune in to see the show that they want.

Personally, my theory is that network is not the answer to distribution. I think it’s going to be about tablets, and I think it’s going to be about streaming. I think it’s going to be all the other ways to get your 3-D because the network paradigm is too mired in the past. These guys just aren’t paying attention.

The other thing is that people are streaming their movies and television to a tablet, then it’s auto-stereoscopic. You don’t need glasses. So if you’re sitting on a bus, sitting on a plane, sitting in the park or in your room and you’re watching something on a single user screen and you don’t need glasses, you can toggle back and forth between 2-D and 3-D content, no problem.

GigaOM: From a network infrastructure perspective, is there enough bandwidth to support streaming 3-D?

James Cameron: There’s certainly no bandwidth issue. If you’re carrying an HD signal, you can carry a 3-D signal. They subdivide the 3-D picture into two half HD pictures to get recombined into a full 3-D stream. Ultimately we’d like to get to dual stream HD, just because it looks better. But we’d like to get to 4K, too. I think at the point where we move to 4K, we can do dual-stream HD.

I think the push to 4K will give us the bandwidth to do full, dual stream HD. We don’t need that right now. We have plenty of delivery systems right now that can carry an HD picture. If you can carry HD you can carry 3-D. Especially for smaller screens.

Where you really need full HD is delivery to theaters. The pay-per-view theater model really requires that, but it’s double the bandwidth. So we’re driving toward that. But it’s always 18 months away, as you know.