Going Boothless: Is the projection booth needed anymore?

Features
Technology

Digital has eliminated the labor-intensive operations involved with platters, prints and mechanical projectors; now it’s bringing into question the need for the traditional space once devoted to that.

There are multiple approaches to boothless projection: The projector may be enclosed in a box hung from the ceiling, suspended above the last row of seats in the auditorium, or mounted on a rail system attached to the rear wall. Or it may be in a small room in the back of each auditorium—or tucked in a space above the auditorium’s entrance.

No one approach dominates. To hear some experiences and points of view on what’s going on, we convened a “virtual roundtable” of several exhibitors from the U.S., the U.K. and Latin America; a systems integrator; two projector representatives; and a cinema architect. The conversation begins…

Dr. Don Shaw, (Senior Director, Product Management, Christie): I wouldn’t say that boothless is common yet. Most cinemas still have a traditional projection booth. I cover the Asian region and some sites are boothless, especially in South Korea, but it’s definitely the exception and not the norm at this point in time.

Andre Mort (Technical Director, Empire Cinemas, U.K.): Back in 2007 or 2008, we wanted to add some extra screens in Empire Leicester Square. We started with a pod with a projector mounted in the ceiling. Service was a bit of a challenge; we had to build a platform to change the lamp—and put in a lift system to lower the projector for major work. But we took Leicester Square from a three-screen complex to eight screens.

Jay Reisbaum (Senior VP, Laemmle Theatres, U.S.): In our new Monica Film Center, four of the six auditoriums are boothless; two use a booth. The Royal [Santa Monica, CA] doesn’t have a projection booth; one screen has the projector in an attic space. Another screen has a box with soundproofing, air conditioning and exhaust, with fire suppression and the typical port glass. The box is about nine feet off the floor, above the back row. On one side is a door where somebody can get on a ladder and service the projector inside. We turned the booth area into a screening room.

Daniel Benitez (CTO, Bardan, Distributor/Integrator for Caribbean and Latin America): In Latin America, exhibitors seem most comfortable building a box at the back of the theatre above the seats—or building a small projection room in front of, or behind, the rear wall of the auditorium.

Mort (Empire): We’re using a design where we build a pod from floor to ceiling in the back of the room. To service the projector, you stand on a platform. And for some auditoriums that open directly onto a corridor, we’re putting the projector up over the corridor. To gain access, you pull open the door with the porthole in it and pull out the projector that sits on a rail system.

Mark Collins (Director of Projection Technology, Marcus Theatres, U.S.): Our approach is to add a small room—we call it a projection pod—to the back of each auditorium and put everything in it, from lighting dimmers to the sound rack, automations, the server and the projector. There’s a central place in the building for the Library Management Server that holds the remote software and does the distribution.

Mort (Empire): We have a digital cinema server room where we have banks with the servers, the sound processors, the automations, and the amplifiers—and that room can be anywhere in the building. Speakers and sound are done in the normal manner, but everything’s controlled from the server room.

Reisbaum (Laemmle): We put the servers behind the box office. We are able to monitor everything from that one spot.

Benitez (Bardan): One of the biggest challenges is [that] there are no “best practices” in place. We’re learning all the time, figuring out the details—and how to best apply them.

Mike Cummings (Principal, TK Architects): But designing a boothless cinema is more involved than designing one with a booth. So if you’re not going to do a booth, you need to be clear: What is your objective? 

Mort (Empire): For us, if we don’t have to take up any space with a large common booth, we can get more seats in. And that lowers our construction costs as well, because any time we have to build a large room, there’s a cost to that.

Cummings (TK Architects): But there are costs to add more platforms to gain more seating; there could be some added costs for where the other equipment goes; there certainly could be some added costs for all the services and how you distribute them.

Joe DeMeo (North American Director of Sales, Barco): I’ve heard people say, “We thought boothless would save money, but at the end of the day it actually didn’t.”

Reisbaum (Laemmle): By eliminating the common booth, where we used to have one large auditorium, we now have three smaller houses. The back wall of the largest auditorium is the screen wall of the two smaller houses. Suddenly, we’ve tripled the amount of product we can show. And if we need more seats, we can always put the product on multiple screens.

Benitez (Bardan): We’ve been working with a group of architects on a design of a “flared theatre”—where the room widens a bit in the front. It allows for a bigger screen; and the way the walls are configured, it makes the screen look even bigger. The way the chairs pack in the flared room is slightly more optimized and we can even stagger the entrances and exits because the rooms can face different ways.

Fernando Soriano (CEO/CTO, Cineplanet, Peru and Chile): By eliminating booths, auditoriums can be upsized, increasing the capacity per unit and the total capacity for the complex. It’s easier to calibrate the projector and the audio processor because the equipment is inside the auditorium. And the projectionists’ role becomes more active; since they don’t have a place to stay, they can engage more with the customers in the auditoriums.

Benitez (Bardan): In new builds, exhibitors can get lobbies with higher ceilings—which provide a much more cinematic audience experience. And the hallways don’t have to be quite so low and dark. 

Marcos Barros (CEO, Cinesystem, Brazil): As the projectors have become more integrated into the theatre environment, cinema-goers can see the projection equipment and perceive the technological improvements.

Reisbaum (Laemmle): We’ll be opening a five-plex in Glendale that will be entirely boothless, with the servers and the monitors in locked cabinets on public view in the lobby. It’s like an “open kitchen” concept; it helps the public feel more a part of the experience.

Cummings (TK Architects): You would think that boothless projection would go more aggressively; but in terms of new construction, we’re probably seeing about half and half—booth projection and boothless

Mort (Empire): When you have a booth, if you have problems with the equipment, you can look out the porthole, see what’s going on and make the changes. When everything’s in the auditorium, making a fix is more difficult, especially during a show.

Collins (Marcus): In our configuration, we can go through a door into the pod to resolve the issue with minimal disruption in the auditorium. Being an old technician, I always consider how I’m going to service the equipment.

Reisbaum (Laemmle): Of course, the reality is machines today need very little service. Most of the issues can be dealt with by computer, remotely.

Cummings (TK Architects): But I think some exhibitors do see challenges after they’ve gone boothless. If they’ve realized the savings they expected, I think they’re OK with the challenges.

Reisbaum (Laemmle): There is no reason to not have a traditional booth, if you have the space; operationally, it’s much easier. Most of our theatres still have traditional booths; we have a lot of equipment—the automations and the sound processors—up in them.

Soriano (Cineplanet): And in complexes with unstable energy, a booth can work best because the projectionist can more rapidly turn off the equipment.

Cummings (TK Architects): Most of our larger customers aren’t going completely boothless, but one thing we are seeing—booths are much smaller. There are no platters—and it’s not a continually occupied space.

Collins (Marcus): We would only use boothless for a new build; there would be no financial gain if we were retrofitting an existing theatre.

Mort (Empire): We have no plans to put booths in any future builds, except where IMAX is involved. That’s because of the minimum space needed to get the IMAX projectors in—and to be able to service the kit.

Reisbaum (Laemmle): Our newest theatres, using the newest technology, are run from the box office or from the manager’s office.

Barros (Cinesystem): For us, the advantages of boothless projection outweigh the disadvantages. The current technology makes it easier to remotely manage and maintain each auditorium’s system in an independent way.

Cummings (TK Architects): I have a suspicion that as we get younger, more tech-savvy people who want to program everything with their phones, we’ll probably see more boothless solutions.

Mort (Empire): For those considering going boothless, it’s important to think about the size of projectors you’re using, so you get your pods designed right. Think about how you will need to gain access to your pods. Consider your speaker positions, because you don’t want your pod doors to open onto a speaker. Also, consider your ventilation—and make sure your pods look cosmetically right in the auditoriums.

Collins (Marcus): How much seating are you willing to forego if you’ll put a pod in the back? Can you make the intrusion in the auditorium less? Can you push the pod outside more? Should you build the pods above the hallways, so in the auditorium you don't see anything but a port window?

Benitez (Bardan): A well-designed system must take into account the construction constraints of the project, how the technical team will be operating within the theatre, and what the exhibitor will do to maximize the benefits they gain. Most importantly, how can boothless be combined with the auditorium and lobby design to create a better customer experience?

Mort (Empire): And, if you’re putting in 3D, you need to allow the correct space in front of the projector. There’s nothing worse than finding the pod’s too small for 3D.

Cummings (TK Architects): I’m especially interested in what impact laser projection might have on boothless solutions. With laser, the heat you’re trying to remove is from the light engine, which in Barco’s case is in a separate box. Can that be in a different space?

Collins (Marcus): Laser projectors are more sensitive to temperature variations, so you need to make sure the pod is cooled well to a constant temperature. Actually, it’s less expensive to cool a small pod than a larger projection booth. And you’re just circulating the air, not exhausting it.

Joe DeMeo (Barco): If you’re talking about Barco RGB laser projectors, they come with at least one external chiller—for the larger projectors, you’re talking two. You can have the chillers up to 10 meters from the projector and in a temperature-controlled environment.

Shaw (Christie): Our chillers are built into the laser modules, which are in the laser rack. The laser rack can be up to 20 meters away from the projector.But I think, in the future, laser technology is going to evolve quite rapidly so you won’t have to chill it so aggressively—in which case a laser projector will be ideal in a boothless enclosure.

Collins (Marcus): Lots of options, lots of considerations.

Benitez (Bardan): And change takes time. The beginning seems very gradual, but then it ramps up quickly after it hits a certain inflection point. We aren’t at that point yet with boothless, but we are seeing some nice, steady growth.

Collins (Marcus): For the future, a theatre doesn’t need to be a self-contained box; you could design theatres with different auditoriums in different places in the building. It’s kind of the “wild west” at the moment, but boothless really frees up everyone to come up with new concepts for movie theatres.

Benitez (Bardan): The ultimate goal of any cinema technology is to provide the best cinematic experience to the audience for the best cost to the exhibitor. The interesting question long-term is: If we can design our theatres without the constraints of a traditional projection booth, what else can we do that we couldn’t before? As an industry, if we can focus on that, we’ll do fine.