SAN FRANCISCO -- The Oscars will light up Hollywood on Sunday, but much of the behind-the-scenes work played out here, the home of Dolby Laboratories.
The company known best for home speaker systems has re-engineered audio effects for the Oscars, held for the first time at the newly renamed Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Every musical note, car crash, explosion, sniffle and gust of wind that plays on the big screen will matter. It's not just a Hollywood theater full of movie producers and directors and special effects artists Dolby has to impress -- the Oscars is one of the most watched entertainment award shows in the world.
"There's nothing like having 1.2 billion watching to have you get really engaged and excited about getting something perfect," said Ramzi Haidamus, Dolby executive vice president of marketing and business development. "So the pressure is on."
The Dolby surround sound system, which will be used for the first time to broadcast movie clips at the awards show, was developed at the company's San Francisco laboratory.
The East Bay will also make a cameo at the Oscars. Berkeley-based Meyer Sound Laboratories provided custom speakers for Dolby Theatre.
Dolby bought the naming rights to what was called the Kodak Theatre for an undisclosed amount last summer, with plans to renovate the 180,000-square-foot space. Achieving Oscar-worthy acoustics in an aging five-story theater that seats 3,400 people wasn't easy.
Dolby Theatre is outfitted with the company's newest audio technology, which can manipulate the movement of sound and control the exact millisecond that audience members hear it, Haidamus said. A clip of a helicopter on the big screen will sound like it's thundering overhead no matter if you sit in the front row or top balcony, or how close you are to any of the theater's 187 speakers.
Audio effects that make you want to duck and cover can be dreamed up, designed and built in only a handful of places -- and according to Dolby, the Bay Area tops the list. The lion's share of Dolby's 500 engineers are in the Bay Area, and many of them worked on the Dolby Theatre sound system for the past four years.
"The valley is the place where technology is cooked by people," said Giles Baker, senior vice president of Dolby's broadcast business group. "It's the intersection of technological excitement, artistic drive and people who are really, really willing to get stuck in and work on something for a long period of time."
Dolby has three San Francisco offices and a research lab in Sunnyvale.
Some analysts question the big hoopla of Dolby's Oscar debut, and say it's more a marketing victory than a sign of the company's technological prowess. Dolby's name will be embedded in the Oscars for the next 20 years -- the length of the theater lease.
"It's a form of advertising," said Steven Frankel, an analysts at Dougherty & Co.
Dolby is worth an estimated $3.2 billion, according to analysts, but the company's revenues have taken a hit in the past couple of years. While many DVDs and high-definition TVs use Dolby sound technology, mobile and Internet videos do not. Michael Olson, a senior research analyst for Piper Jaffray, said the Oscars gives Dolby the chance to blast its brand to more than a billion people and build up customer demand for Dolby technology in smartphones and PCs.
Haidamus said he hopes the Oscars will help the Dolby name draw more customers, "whether you bought a Walkman tape player or a Kindle last week."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.