Technological Allies: CinemaCon innovators strive to enhance the movie experience

Features
Technology

At the CinemaCon trade show in Las Vegas, it’s all about helping movie theatres large and small deliver a more compelling experience to their customers and attract new business. And this past April, that message was louder and clearer than ever.

“Loud and clear” are appropriate words for the tech companies that are endeavoring to bring immersive audio to a greater number of locations. Dolby Laboratories, for one, made news with the announcement of its new SLS Express Series, designed to expand the footprint of their Dolby Atmos premium audio experience.

As Jed Harmsen, senior director, cinema products, explained, “We launched Dolby Atmos about three years ago and have seen a phenomenal amount of momentum. We’re at over 1,600 screens installed or committed, and over 400 feature films, not just Hollywood titles but many internationally produced titles. All of the Hollywood majors are contributing to the format. It’s clear that the creative community and the exhibition community and the studio community have all bought into this being the next-generation aural experience, if you will, and our job is how to take that beyond 1,600 screens and make it available as broadly as possible. So we’re focusing on all the elements from a total-cost-of-ownership standpoint, not just the Atmos innovation, but the cost of the speakers, the overheads, the cost of labor, the opportunity cost of having a room closed down for an amount of time. We looked at all those cost contributors from a customer’s perspective and said: What can we do to make it more affordable to get into that premium audio experience? So, with the SLS Express Series we’ve created the opportunity to reduce the cost of a Dolby Atmos installation by up to 40 percent.”

The SLS Express Series consists of new three-axis speakers, smaller, lighter units that can be installed directly into ceiling tiles, and a Rapid Rigging System for those opting for a different brand or style of speaker. The innovative rigging system “runs the entire span of the room and you can effectively load all the speakers in on one end and pull them all into place,” Harmsen explained, rather than going through the tedious process of installing overheads two at a time.

A final element of SLS Express is the first Dolby-branded amplifier, a new amp design which will debut on the market “in the not-too-distant future.” Harmsen estimated that this Dolby innovation can lower amplification costs by as much as 30 percent.

“I would like to see us at a point in the future where for every feature film every moviegoer has the ability to experience Atmos-quality sound in an Atmos-equipped theatre with Atmos-equipped content,” Harmsen stated. “If we believe this is how to best represent the creative intent [of the filmmakers] and provide the greatest amount of fidelity to the moviegoer, we need to be thinking about innovative ways to make it more accessible to all circuits across all screens.”

Hong Kong-based GDC Technology is also doing its part to bring immersive sound to many more theatres. Tony Adamson, senior VP, strategic planning, declared, “In our opinion, we have the most innovative new technology products at CinemaCon. Two of them are the SX-4000 IMB and the XSP-1000 Cinema Processor. The IMB has a built-in DTS:X decoder with 18 channels. Why 18? Sixteen channels is for immersive sound, with two more channels for hearing devices or D-BOX or an alternate device. That allows the exhibitor to have full, rich, immersive sound in 16 channels. And it’s affordable. But what’s really unique about it is it’s also future-proof. If I’m an exhibitor and I purchase this bundle today, I can install the equipment in a new theatre, a retrofit theatre, any size auditorium, and I don’t necessarily have to activate the DTS:X, I can do it down the road. So it allows somebody to say I want to put in immersive sound, but I want to try one auditorium first…or maybe I’ll do my whole theatre.”

Adamson elaborated on the benefits of the DTS:X system. “It doesn’t necessarily require ceiling speakers. It’s based on a configuration file that tells the objects where to go. If you have 64 speakers and you’re doing 16 channels, it groups speakers, so you still get the objects going where they’re supposed to and you get this incredible sound… An exhibitor for the first time ever can have an immersive sound solution for any size auditorium.”

Dr. Man-Nang Chong, founder and chairman of GDC Technology, also praised the new IMB: “By giving exhibitors the first-ever affordable choice to install immersive sound, this new solution from GDC can be a game-changer for the industry. Audiences around the world will certainly experience better sound regardless of the size of the auditorium.”

All 16 channels are watermarked, Adamson noted, and the IMB also offers up-mix capabilities when combined with their advanced cinema processor. “If you’re playing alternative content or you have NCM or Screenvision or another cinema-ad company, you can now play your commercials in immersive sound. It also allows that for sporting events, concerts, the opera… Imagine hearing the opera in immersive 3D sound. And that’s built in—it will automatically up-mix from 5.1 surround sound into a 3D immersive system.”

Adamson reported that more than 100 screens in China have already installed GDC’s immersive sound system. “We’ve done over 20 movies already in China in DTS:X, and five or six movies here [in the U.S.] Content is starting to really flow.”

In all, 2016 marks a true sea change for GDC. “We’re in the sound business now,” Adamson attested. “We have a very robust TMS and LMS that thousands of theatres use, and we have a new satellite content management system for theatres with DCDC. But we’re here to change the way the world hears movies.”

A longtime, well-respected name in the audio arena is Harman, which recently completed a major reorganization. As Dan Saenz, business segment manager for installed and cinema sound, explained, “We were organized by brands: JBL, Crown, signal processing. Now we’re organized by vertical markets, cinema being one of them. In that vertical market you have sales, marketing, operations… So we can be very focused toward our customers. Previously you weren’t always working together, because you sometimes had not the same objectives. Now there’s one guy who can make those decisions, and it’s much better for our customers—but also for product development as well. We can develop products specifically for this market, and we can develop them working together.

“I’m responsible for all product development for Harman Cinema—that encompasses loudspeakers, amplifiers, processors and software,” Saenz continued. “The best thing about that is, my job is to coordinate through all these development teams and make sure that whatever we’re doing on the speaker side, we have an amplifier that makes sense at the right price. That’s something you’re going to see more of in the near future, the result of our product development team being customer-focused. I’ve spent a significant portion of the last nine months traveling and talking to our customers around the world, and finding out their problems and developing solutions.

“The other thing is the marketing side. We have all these groups doing audio—we’re JBL, we’re Harman, we’re the technology leaders when it comes to sound systems. The JBL brand is probably the number one or number two known brand in all of cinema. The exhibitors know JBL. So you’re going to see a real focus on branding and marketing. People are looking for an experience, and we want to use the JBL brand in certain ways to show that what they have is a premium audio experience.”

One of the key elements of that premium audio experience is surround speakers. Saenz noted, “We have completely redone our surrounds and introduced new technology for better coverage. We just introduced our big 9350. The beauty of this speaker is that it’s a big three-way. It’s designed for immersive systems and some 5.1 systems where they’re looking to get more out of their surrounds. But because of what we’ve done in the coverage, there’s technology here that’s derived from line arrays. You have high-frequency drivers that are being used to work with each other to change the coverage pattern. With our large touring line arrays, we can do really interesting beam steering with those high-frequency drivers. The waveguide and high-frequency drivers can give you a very wide pattern in a very narrow pattern, depending on where you are… We know we can do more with less. You might have eight or six surrounds on a single wall; you might be able to cut that down to three or four with something like this.”

But, going forward, Saenz said Harman would be “less product-focused and more solution-focused…talking about all the products that go in, not just a speaker or an amplifier—everything. This is really a jumping-off point for us, to introduce some new and exciting technologies.”

David McIntosh, VP of Sony Digital Cinema 4K, also sees this past year as a turning point for his company. “Since last June when we launched our double-stack R515 [projector] at CineEurope, we’ve seen a considerable take-up,” he reported. “Historically, very large screens were always a weak point for us. But now that we have the R515, it’s actually our strongest point. Now we can light up the largest screens as much as you want. For example, the one in Mission [San Francisco] we just put in for Alamo—[Alamo CEO] Tim League is saying it’s the best 3D he’s ever seen. We’re incredible foot-Lamberts in terms of brightness. But the real reason it’s so successful is, when you compare the operating cost of our high-pressure mercury lamps against the operating of a 6.5 or seven-kilowatt xenon, the cost is so much lower, it’s just incredible. Not only can they light the big screens better, but the operating cost is massively lower. It’s on the order of $1,000 a month lower, which is really significant.”

McIntosh further emphasized, “When we look at the competitive environment, as of today I don’t see any product which comes close to what we deliver with the R515 double stack. We totally outperform them on contrast ratio, because our R515s are already at least 8,000 to one and have been for years—so it makes me laugh when I see our competitors talking about higher contrast ratio. We totally outperform laser in terms of operating costs, and we totally outperform them in image quality, because it’s 4K and there’s no speckle. To be honest with you, from a Sony point of view, until we see those new laser products actually catching up with where we are, there’s no point in us doing anything in terms of laser. We believe that in all of those measures we currently have the benchmark product. Whether we’re doing a good enough job telling people that is a different question.”

Despite those caveats, McIntosh said Sony will eventually roll out a laser product. “We’re steeped in laser as a technology, but we want to make it better than what we’ve currently got, not just bring out something that competes with what we’re doing,” he clarified.

McIntosh would also like to continue pursuing live 4K event cinema. “We tried really hard with National Theatre and Vue to deliver live 4K into cinemas. We didn’t quite manage it because of some last-minute hiccups. But we did a test with War Horse [in 2010], and we like what we see… I really want to try to continue with live 4K in cinemas, for a number of reasons. Not least the fact that when you acquire it in pure 4K and you take it live or off-live into cinema, because you have the higher resolution and high contrast ratio, your depth perception kicks in, and particularly in a theatre environment you really feel the depth of the stage and the actors. And you’ve got the best view in the house.”

At CinemaCon, laser was the delivery medium of choice for all eight studio presentations in the Caesars Palace Colosseum, via top-of-the-line projectors from Christie and Barco. During the show, Christie announced the global launch of its DCI-compliant CP2208-LP laser phosphor digital-cinema projector, which delivers up to 11,000 native lumens of brightness. It is available as a complete system with the optional Christie IMB-S2 integrated media block and also works with other Series-2 IMBs.

“The Christie CP2208-LP is a truly cost-effective entry into DCI-compliant digital cinema,” said Allan Fernandes, product manager at Christie.“It is the perfect solution for the independent exhibitor, local art houses with limited budgets, and remote sites where lamp maintenance can be troublesome.”

Screenings in the Colosseum utilized higher-end Christie RGB 4K laser projectors with enhanced wavelength diversity. Regarding the future of RGB laser and laser phosphor, the company stated, “Christie believes there is a place in the broader display market for all four existing illumination technologies: lamps, LED, laser phosphor and RGB laser. However, if we specifically consider the unique requirements of cinema, then we are clearly at the dawn of a full-scale transition from lamps to RGB laser, albeit with a brief pause with some customers considering laser phosphor systems for their smaller cinemas along the way.”

Christie also noted that “in the last three years, we have witnessed orders of magnitude improvement in cost, reliability and form factor on Christie’s RGB laser systems… RGB laser systems will continue to descend the cost/price curve over the next few years.”

During CinemaCon, Christie also held live demos of its latest audio product, the Christie Vive Audio LS series. Currently, there are more than 350 Vive Audio installations worldwide.

At another CinemaCon demo, RealD showcased its new “Ultimate Screen” technology with side-by-side 3D presentations. The 3D pioneer said it put eight years of R&D into the engineering of a matte-white screen that is 85% brighter without swapping out projectors. Using clips from the landmark 3D feature Life of Pi, RealD founder and CEO Michael Lewis provided clear evidence that this new screen produces a brighter and crisper image. Surface texture is minimal and the perforations are much smaller without sacrificing audio quality. With 92% light scatter, RealD says the surface “reflects the maximum of light scientifically possible.”

Speaking of screens, China Film Equipment Co. was a major presence on the tradeshow floor, promoting its China Giant Screen (CGS) format. While many theatre circuits around the world have established their own individual premium-large-format (PLF) brands, in China there are just two players in this realm: IMAX and China Giant Screen. According to general manager Jimmy Chen, IMAX currently has 280 screens in the Asia-Pacific region, while China Giant Screen, formed only in 2011, has 131 and expects to hit the 200 mark by the end of the year. The format has also made inroads in Indonesia and the Middle East, and its reps are in discussion with U.S. circuits, Chen noted. (Last year, CGS retrofitted an existing PLF auditorium at the Brenden Palms Casino theatre in Las Vegas.)

Today, CGS is the second-biggest name in the giant-screen business. And since China is such a huge market, the China Giant Screen format is very much on the radar of the Hollywood studios. “For Hollywood content, we have partnered with Deluxe in L.A.,” Chen explained. “We supplied our technology to them to teach them how to remaster for the CGS format. They do Hollywood content in L.A. and our lab in Beijing does Chinese movies—more than 80 movies a year.”

A recent big success story for CGS was the Stephen Chow blockbuster The Mermaid, which earned a remarkable $500 million in China. “IMAX failed to recognize The Mermaid’s potential,” Chen observed. “So for second and third-tier theatres, we managed to pull people out of their living rooms and back to the theatres.”

At CinemaCon, China Film Equipment Co. also showcased other technologies for the Chinese market: among them, the CineAppo laser systems designed for Barco B and C series projectors, and the Freedeo 3D system which is now in over 10,000 screens. With China poised to become the world’s largest movie market by 2017, the future of China Film Equipment Co. is extremely bright.

Exhibiting for the first time at CinemaCon across the aisle from China Film was Korean exhibition and technology giant CJ CGV. Our conversation focused mainly on the future of their 4D multi-sensory platform, 4DX. The company currently has 233 4DPLEX screens in 37 countries, and recently made its debut in a key market, New York City. Brandon Choi, chief operating officer of CJ 4DPLEX America, reported that this Regal Union Square location is doing quite well, with over 80% occupancy on average, including Monday through Friday.

As for the demographic, CJ 4DPLEX CEO Byung Hwan Choi observed, “Obviously, our core target is late teens to early 30s. But if you offer a big title with 4DX, then the segment extends into the late 40s. But younger people feel immersive effects are more fun.”

The CEO continued, “We really want to have more of the 4DX brand here [in the U.S.] We only have two U.S. cinema chains right now, Regal and Marcus, and Cineplex in Canada. But this market is already oversaturated and a little bit flat, so we’re giving exhibitors another solution to leverage their theatres.

“We have so many types of success stories. We penetrated the Japanese market only in 2013. Japan is very near Korea, and we know them so well. Japanese moviegoers resist new technology, but a small cinema chain in Osaka called Corona installed our technology and debuted it with The Amazing Spider-Man. After one month, that chain went to number one with that film. After that performance, eight different Japanese cinemas signed contracts with 4DX.”

Brandon Choi added, “Now we have 33 4DX cinemas in Japan in two and a half years. Last year we opened 24.”

At its CinemaCon booth, CJ CGV offered demos of its latest innovation, 4DX VR, which marries virtual reality with its proprietary 4DX technology. The company is still weighing the possibilities: a single VR location in the lobby while you wait for your movie, or “a differentiated auditorium with VR and motion-simulation technology,” in the words of the CEO.

Last year, the company made a (literally) huge impression with its ScreenX format, which extends the movie image to the side walls of the auditorium. The format is currently on 91 screens, mostly in its home base of Korea, with 10 in China and more to come. “It’s very hard to penetrate into the traditional market,” Byung Hwan Choi admitted. “But we have our own factory and studio and sales force and marketing team. So we are very confident we will have a business opportunity with ScreenX, first in Korea and China, and eventually expanding to the U.S. and other countries.” More than 45 cinema chains have committed to ScreenX, he said, and the next big step for the format will be the release of a Chinese film on 20 to 30 ScreenX screens by the end of June.

Digital software and services company Arts Alliance Media, meanwhile, is making noise with Thunderstorm, a global online marketplace for the theatre business. In CEO John Aalbers’ words, “It’s fundamentally an app store for the exhibitor industry, and each of those apps and capabilities is designed to help the exhibitor generate new streams of revenue. There’s been a bit of reluctance in the cinema industry to take up software capabilities. If you look at the adoption cycles of industries and where they’re at, it’s fair to say cinema is a late starter. Rather than the traditional software model of trying to get the exhibitor to pay a big license fee upfront and maybe at some point in the future they’ll get value out of it, we said: Let’s try to remove those barriers to entry, and do this as software as a service, either for a monthly fee or as a revenue-share model. There’s no risk to the exhibitor to try some of these new, innovative technologies. They can start using it and at any point stop. But if it works and they’re generating revenue, it becomes quite sticky and they get an upside and we share in that upside. The whole philosophy was to try to make it easier for this industry to take a leap forward in innovation.”

Aalbers also noted that this platform “allows us to open up the market to smaller companies that have really interesting ideas but perhaps don’t have the wherewithal to get across the whole world in order to get to the global market.

We’ve had a lot of success in the TMS [theatre management system] market on a global basis; we’re the market leader, touching about 30,000 screens around the world. The access to those screens enables us to have a platform where on top of that we can put these innovative technologies. We’ve launched it with 20 of our existing customers, and 19 of them have started using the platform, so we’re pretty pleased with the conversion rate.”

Thunderstorm’s initial apps include CineCardz, which allows audiences to book onscreen video greeting cards during the pre-show, ranging from birthday messages to marriage proposals; Cinema Conversations, which enables shared Twitter and Instagram experiences in the cinema lobby; Cheerfy, which puts Wi-Fi into the cinema at no charge and helps employees identify their VIP customers through the WiFi when they enter the cinema space; iPlateia, which uses customers’ mobiles as a personal promotional platform,and Smart Pricer, a cloud-based capability for dynamic pricing. Aalbers expects to have a total of 15 to 16 apps available by the end of the year, and roughly 25 by the end of 2017.

For more CinemaCon tech highlights, see our coverage of Cinemeccanica’s new in-theatre gaming system and Barco’s multi-faceted theatre technology, as exemplified by its new Innovation Center at Regal L.A. LIVE. Next month, FJI reports on Atom Tickets and its groundbreaking theatrical mobile ticketing platform and app.