Upping Their Gain: Screen technology continues to evolve

Features
Technology

There have been many physical changes in theatres since silent movies were first projected in the late 19th century. One constant is that there has always been a screen at the front of the auditorium. As we will explore below, there are several companies intent on making the cinema-going experience incrementally more immersive by adding additional screens in a panoramic configuration on the sides of the theatre.   

According to recent industry statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America, there are more than 150,000 movie screens in theatres worldwide. More than half of these are located in two countries, China and the United States. Most of the recent screen growth has been centered in the Asia-Pacific region.

China was once upon a time considered dramatically under-screened for its relative population of 1.4 billion people. Over a recent five-year period, which coincided with the worldwide digital-cinema conversion boom, China actively erected new-build locations at a staggering 34% annual clip.

Although some would still characterize the country as under-screened, in late 2016 it surpassed the United States for total screen-count global dominance. China has over 41,000 movie auditoriums, according to U.K.-based analytics and data research shop IHS Markit, and it continues to add to that number in 2017.

The acknowledged leader in Chinese screen manufacturing, with an enviable approximate 80 percent market share, is the aptly named Star Screen. Last year, China added in excess of 9,500 new screens and Star Screen produced approximately 70% of them. They also have an installed base of 400 screens, both large and small, in theme parks across the country. What sets them apart from the others?

“High quality, fast delivery and low price” are key differentiators, according to Yan Su, Star Screen’s general manager in sales. She adds, “We are hoping that in five years there will also be more international theatres enjoying our products.”

Star Screen offers a full and diversified product line, which includes PLF (Premium Large Format), Silver for accommodating 3D and other formats, plus its White line—which the Chinese market also commonly refers to as digital screens and is ideal for laser projection, which is gaining popularity in Asia and other parts of the world. 

With approximately 60% worldwide screen market share, Harkness Screens is the clear leader in the sector. Its corporate history dates to the 1920s and the company calls Ireland its home, with headquarters in Dublin.

In addition to its market-share dominance, Harkness is also the only global supplier of screen technology with production facilities on more than one continent. Richard Mitchell, VP of global marketing and commercial development, states, “Between our facilities in Europe, North America and Asia, Harkness is able to service markets locally, reducing shipping costs and lead times.”

Their worldwide combined aggregate base of Harkness’s Spectral 3D screen product and its now fourth-generation Clarus XC is approximately the equal of the entire screen count of the U.S., at roughly 40,000 units.

Some exhibitors prefer its Perlux Digital white gain screens. According to Mitchell, “These are extremely popular with exhibitors that wish to optimize and reduce operating costs with xenon-based laser projectors or to help improve brightness from challenging projection setups.”

Harkness also provides an array of adjacent technologies to help exhibitors design their auditoriums, while also managing and maximizing onscreen light levels. New technologies include a suite of software applications and the acquisition of the global license for Qalif light and sound measurement devices, as well as the launch of a digital 3D surveying service to support renovation projects.

Harkness partners globally with RealD, jointly offering Precision White screen technology exclusively to RealD’s customer base.

RealD has also internally developed the “Ultimate Screen.” Pete Lude, the company’s chief innovation officer, indicates, “It’s a unique patented process that created an engineered reflective surface—rather than traditional spray-on coatings—to optimize the image. It reflects more light back from the projector than traditional silver screens, and distributes the light more evenly throughout the auditorium.”

There are currently two models available: a 2.1 gain with a half-gain angle of 38 degrees, and a 2.8 gain with a half-gain angle of 32 degrees. Both feature a stereo-contrast ratio of up to 500:1 (reducing or eliminating 3D “ghosting”) and the smallest sound perforations available on the market.

Although these screens are manufactured using a unique process, they are still shipped in convenient rolls, and mounted in a process similar to traditional screens. The Ultimate Screen is currently installed at select theatres and screening rooms and is being rolled out on a limited basis to RealD exhibitors worldwide.

Severtson Screens (Mesa, AZ) transacts business across the world. The family-owned and operated company’s original business was producing projection screens for military and commercial flight simulators. Severtson has also created screens for interactive amusement park rides, planetarium domes and specialized museum displays.

Its full complement of projection screens come with a wide variety of optical coatings and degrees of acoustical transparency. Severtson’s complete product line covers simple home theatres, specialized Pro-AV systems and, of course, screens for the exhibitor market.

“The quality of our optical coatings is the primary difference between Severtson and its competitors,” opines president and CEO Toby Severtson. “The specialized properties of our optical coatings allow the company to produce 3D silver screens out of micro-perforated vinyl without compromising the screen’s acoustically transparent properties. The coatings’ durability also allows all Severtson screens to be folded, reducing shipping costs and making delivery and installation much easier for theatre owners to manage.”

Severtson recently introduced a 4K-compatible woven screen that is acoustically transparent, and later this year they plan to debut a new perforation pattern called Digi-Perf, which will increase the acoustical transparency of its cinema projection screens.

To the north of the U.S. is another well-respected manufacturer, Strong MDI. Based in Joliette, Quebec, the company manufactures screens, motorized systems, structures and frames for venues across the globe. It is primarily recognized for specialized coatings and rigorous quality standards.

According to general manager François Barrette, “We manufacture screens specially designed for PLF installations that reflect up to 40% more overall light than standard surfaces. Freestanding modular construction allows for easy assembly and unlimited size. The structures are designed with custom curve and tilt, making them conveniently flexible for large wall-to-wall wraparound screens.”

Indian cinema screen technology company Galalite recently unveiled its marketing campaign for 2017, named “Screen of Tomorrow.”The campaign champions Galalite’s dedication to “futuristic innovation” and its impact on cinematic storytelling. The tagline, “Galalite Screens—The future of the movie viewing experience,” emphasizes that “what Galalite thinks today, others think tomorrow.”

Galalite’s screens are specially designed to reduce hotspotting, increase gain and provide lifelike colors and effects. Galalite screens are treated with an innovative coating that prevents yellowing and is safe for the environment.

Finally, two international companies are at the forefront of pushing the envelope in exploring the impact of adding a couple of additional screens on the side of the main front one.

Barco is no stranger to global cinema infrastructure. Its relatively new Escape offering has a current footprint of 30 theatres, with roughly two-thirds of those residing in the U.S. Todd Hoddick, CEO of Barco Escape, indicates that we could see many more of these auditoriums in action over the next three to five years.  

Barco Escape’s multi-screen, panoramic movie format utilizes three cinema projectors and two additional Cinemascope screens, allowing filmmakers to dramatically expand the possibilities of movies across a much larger canvas. Some directors are creating stunning, panoramic wide shots never before possible. Others are leveraging the format to tell different parts of their story across the three screens.

When Star Trek Beyond was released last year, producer J.J. Abrams and director Justin Lin created an additional 20 minutes of footage exclusively to play on Escape screens, some of which are up to 120 feet wide. According to statistics supplied by Barco, Star Trek Beyond achieved 62% greater revenue per theatre on Escape screens than the average gross in other locations.

Barco Escape is not the only multi-screen player. It has a serious competitor in South Korea-based ScreenX. Director of content Paul Kim notes, “ScreenX is a multi-projection system, which projects images onto the walls of the theatre, creating an immersive visual experience and surrounding the audience in 270 degrees of content.”

Although ScreenX is still in its infancy in the U.S., in Asia the company has been showing feature length films and pre-show advertisements in their format since 2013. With over 100 ScreenX theatres throughout Asia, major Korean and Chinese tentpole films have been released in ScreenX format to much success.