After a four-year absence from theaters, Ang Lee will return this fall with an searing film about young American war heroes that may land him, once again, in the Oscar race. But the movie, billed as a cinematic leap forward because of the digitally radical way it was shot, has faced one major question.
Because few commercial theaters have projection systems that are technologically advanced enough, will anyone even be able to see “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in the exact format Mr. Lee intended?
At the very least, New Yorkers will.
The New York Film Festival said on Monday that it would host the world premiere of Mr. Lee’s film on Oct. 14 in a theater — a relatively small one, with just 300 seats — rigged with projectors capable of playing the film in 3-D, 4K ultra-high-definition and at the extremely fast speed of 120 frames a second. No film has ever been shown publicly that way before, according to the festival and Sony Pictures, which will release “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” nationally on Nov. 11.
It may sound like techno-babble, but Mr. Lee’s blend of visual formats is a major departure for movie exhibition, particularly when it comes to the speed. Films have been presented almost exclusively at 24 frames a second since the 1920s. To some degree, that rate gives cinema its otherworldly quality — the blur when cameras pan from side to side, for instance.
To achieve a sharper picture and limit the eye strain that can affect 3-D viewers, some filmmakers are experimenting with higher speeds. Peter Jackson tried 48 frames a second with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012; James Cameron is considering higher-speed cinematography for his “Avatar” sequels. But no mainstream director has pushed as far as Mr. Lee, who has a history of embracing new technology, with the digitally rendered tiger in “Life of Pi” as one example.
“I thought Billy’s journey, which is both intimate and epic, and told almost entirely from his point of view, lent itself particularly well to the emotion and intensity that this new approach fosters,” Mr. Lee said in a statement. He added that technology “should always be in service of artistic expression, to make it strong and fresh, because story and drama matter most.”
Marc Platt, one of the film’s producers, said in an email that “movies today need to give audiences compelling reasons to escape their devices, and that means taking risks.”
The film is considered a risk partly because the hyper-reality lent by the cinematography technology could be unsettling to viewers. “Test subjects that have seen some footage have commented that 40 minutes after seeing battle footage, they’re still shaking,” Ben Gervais, a production systems supervisor on the film, told Variety in April.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel, is about a hero in the Iraq war (played by the newcomer Joe Alwyn) who is whisked back to the United States with fellow veterans after a harrowing battle. They go on a surreal victory tour that ends with a halftime show at a Thanksgiving football game. The supporting cast includes Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin. Sony and its partners spent a little under $40 million to make the movie.
It is expected that the specially outfitted theater, which is at AMC Lincoln Square, will play “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” when the film begins its theatrical run shortly after the conclusion of the New York Film Festival. Moviegoers elsewhere will have to make do with whatever screening environment that local multiplexes can best provide. There are theaters, for instance, that can play a movie at 120 frames a second, although not in 3-D. Even Imax theaters can play 3-D movies only at a maximum of 60 frames a second. (Regardless of the setup, it will look sharper than a standard movie.)
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” promises to give the New York Film Festival the sizzle that seemed lacking when organizers announced the bulk of their lineup this month. Absent were hotly anticipated narrative movies like “Gone Girl” or “Captain Phillips,” both of which had their premieres at the event in years past. “The 13th,” a Netflix documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that examines the United States’ sky-high incarceration rate, will open this year’s festival on Sept. 30.
Known for auteur-driven and foreign-language cinema, the festival has a mixed track record as an awards indicator. Sony successfully unveiled David Fincher’s “The Social Network” there in 2010; it went on to collect $225 million at the global box office and receive nominations for eight Academy Awards, winning three. But Sony’s technologically adventurous “The Walk,” directed by Robert Zemeckis, was rebuffed by ticket buyers and awards groups after opening last year’s festival.
Kent Jones, the event’s director, said in a statement that Mr. Lee’s film “moved me deeply — in the grandest way, as a story of America in the years after the invasion of Iraq, and on the most intimate person-to-person wavelength.”
In a phone interview, Mr. Jones said: “We are used to seeing 3-D used to focus on spectacle. This is precisely the opposite. It’s all about the faces, the smallest emotional shifts.”