Digital 3D Dominates the Tradeshow Floor

Digital 3D was all the buzz at ShoWest 2008, from DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg’s unveiling of scenes from Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens to the premiere of the first digital 3D live-action feature, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. The coming wave lent new excitement to the tradeshow floor, too, and Film Journal International spoke to several key players about the technological changes impacting the modern cinema.

When we met with Nancy Fares, business manager for Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema Products Group, she was brimming with excitement over the announcement that IMAX Corporation will be incorporating DLP Cinema into its new digital projection systems. “It’s a big day for us,” she declared. “IMAX is the cream of the crop, when you think about the performance and the ultimate image experience. They are all about the absolute best theatrical experience, and this is what we’re about too. So the combination of the two is really telling of the capability of digital cinema. It’s showing off what we can do under extremes. Our technology will now go all the way from the smallest screens to the largest screens in the world.”

For IMAX, too, the deal is a big win. “The cost of 70mm film is obviously quite high, and IMAX hasn’t had access to a lot of content because of that,” Fares notes. “And now with digital, they’ll have much more access. It opens up great opportunities for them.” Fares expects the new IMAX digital projection system to begin rolling out later this year.

The DLP Cinema executive is also encouraged by the recent success of 3D features, which she notes perform twice as well in theatres as their 2D versions.

“We believe 3D will drive the digital deployment faster and faster,” she observes. “That’s great, because we’re ready to go.” As for alternative content, “We have an opportunity as an industry to do more than movies on these screens, and to bring an experience that’s superior.”

Texas Instruments unveiled its first DLP Cinema projector ten years ago, and Fares says she’s excited by the recent growth in digital installations—“but we’re humbled by how long it took us to get here.”

Borrowing a theme from Hillary Clinton, Fares declares, “It takes a whole industry to raise digital cinema,” acknowledging the support from the studios, partner projections companies Christie, Barco and NEC, and early adopters in exhibition like Carmike Cinemas. “We couldn’t ask for a better first mover in the U.S. than Carmike. They’re not in big cities, but they have embraced the message of what digital brings to the consumer. They’ve done a lot of experimentation with different content at different times, like children’s programming on Saturday mornings.

“The big circuits that haven’t gone yet are also visionaries,” Fares adds. “They are thinking about how they are going to make the best of this technology.”
Fares feels the time is now to get aboard the digital bandwagon, noting, “The higher the volume, the more efficiencies you have… There are a lot of good deals that the exhibitors can sign up for, and I hope they do.”

Venerable film projection company Christie, one of the Texas Instruments OEMs, was showing off its new “lightweight contender,” the CP2000-M DLP Cinema projector, on the tradeshow floor. Weighing in at only 95 pounds, it’s the first Christie projector utilizing TI’s smaller .98-inch DLP Cinema chip.

“We’re very proud of it,” says Craig Sholder, Christie’s VP of entertainment solutions. “It’s a ground-up design for us, for use on screens as wide as 35 feet. It fills a niche in the marketplace and helps rounds out our entire product portfolio.” The CP2000-M also boasts a new motorized lensing system with a selection of eight zoom lenses.

For the largest screens (up to 100 feet), Christie is now offering enhanced brightness from two new projectors in the 2000 series, the CP2000-SB and CP2000-XB.

Christie also debuted its new 3D2P system, which consists of two DLP Cinema projectors on a special stacking frame with rollers and adjustable racks. “There’s no limitation on screen size,” Sholder explains. “Exhibitors can have 3D on their largest screens and run lamps in each projector that are less than what they would have to run in a single-projector solution. With single-projector solutions on those types of screens, they’re typically running the lamp at 100% of its power. Here we’re offering the exhibitor a low operating expense, plus the capability to move the feature from a big house to a medium size to a small house, a playout capability which the other systems don’t offer.” The 3D2P system comes with no recurring licensing fees.

Sholder acknowledges that 3D is “now in the driver’s seat,” but speculates that “when a more established base of digital technology is available, I think our industry is going to see the alternative-content players come in and possibly take over that driver’s seat.”

While competitor Sony Electronics touts its high-resolution 4K technology, Sholder sees “a very high comfort and confidence level with 2K because of the thousands of systems out there and the good feedback from an operational standpoint. Exhibitors are a very small community, and they all talk and share their experiences, and they’ve had a good experience with the Christie projector in 2K.”

At ShoWest, Christie announced two major deals in Canada, a commitment from Cineplex Entertainment for 25 new installations and a pact with Empire Theatres for 16 new locations. Christie has more than 4,600 digital-cinema installations worldwide, representing 80% of the global market.

Dolby Laboratories’ dominating theme at ShoWest was “digital cinema simplified.” “Yes, it’s complex technology,” says Jim Farney, marketing director for motion pictures, “but if you do a good job designing the product, you’ll shield the user from all the complexity. In the end, you’re just trying to run a business and show movies at the right time. At every juncture we’ve tried the simplify the process and take the mystery out of it. You don’t have to understand how complex an IT network is to sit at a computer and get on an exchange server.”

Farney is talking about Dolby’s Theatre Management Software (TMS), which allows exhibitors to program the entire theatre complex’s schedule (including lights, curtains, pre-show content and the main feature) for a full week using an intuitive screen interface. “You have the ability to monitor it or to intervene if there’s an exceptional event, but by and large the entire cineplex is going to run on its own,” declares Farney.

“We went out and interviewed and interviewed the people who actually run projection booths and asked: What do you want?” Farney continues. “We ended up with a user interface that makes sense to them—a lot of people have said that it’s easier to operate than a 35mm projector.”

Once known primarily as an audio company, Dolby has made an impactful transition into both digital theatre management and digital 3D. Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, which does not require a silver screen and employs reusable glasses and a special color filter wheel inside the projector, received a fun showcase with the ShoWest screening of nWave Pictures’ animated Fly Me to the Moon.

Since its launch about six months ago, Dolby Digital 3D is now in some 100 sites. The more expensive, recyclable glasses (which cost just under $40 each) have met some resistance from exhibitors, but Farney says they will withstand about 500 uses. “Divide $40 by 500, and they’re a lot less expensive than the disposable glasses,” Farney contends.

Farney also feels that one of the big selling points of the overall Dolby Digital system is its interoperability. “Buyers all say the same thing: They like someone who has a really integrated solution. If it’s all or nothing, people aren’t crazy about it. We’ve hosted Real D, we’re being controlled by Technicolor’s TMS and by AccessIT’s system. We control all sorts of automation systems. And we’ve announced a program where we will allow Dolby 3D to be hosted on other servers.”

Along with a crystal-clear 4K presentation of the Sony Pictures release 21 at ShoWest, Sony Electronics made news with the announcement of a new integrated business group that will provide exhibitors with a variety of tools to support the sales and marketing of 4K CineAlta™ digital projection systems in the United States.

Based in Los Angeles, the Digital Cinema Services and Solutions Division will provide a turn-key solution for theatres, offering a wide range of services including equipment installation, maintenance and financing programs, plus the necessary expertise to create alternative sources for entertainment content. Michael Fidler, former CEO of digital-media and home-entertainment technology company Digeo, will serve as senior VP.

“Things seem to be settling down,” says Robert Gibbons, marketing and communications director at Kodak Digital Cinema, part of Eastman Kodak’s Company’s Entertainment Imaging division. This year’s convention was more subdued, he observed, “with more focus on the business aspects of exhibition, and with recognition that digital technology has proven itself to be reliable and evolving.” With Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D presented on Kodak systems in “a further demonstration of the reliability and quality of our digital solution,” he views the digital third dimension as “a key driving force.”

With Kodak in the driver’s seat? “This is turning out to be a business where so many things are coming together simultaneously,” Gibbons responds, “where no one entity controls the pace or direction of the market.” As a “serious competitor” and “fully committed responder,” however, the company message is: “Kodak is ready when you are,” he attests. “We are convincing the industry of an essential truth: In digital cinema, a company’s ‘business plan’ is really an offer of a long-term relationship—and so it’s one that exhibitors should enter only with a partner they trust to listen to them and to be responsive to their changing and growing needs. We are fortunate that message continues to attract exhibitors to talk to Kodak.”

With about 2,000 screens of 38 different circuits equipped for pre-show and feature films in 14 countries, exhibitors are getting the message on a global plane. “Kodak is a worldwide company,” Gibbons notes. “From the beginning, we planned digital cinema for worldwide application. With Kodak offices, representatives and technical support throughout the world, customers know they are buying ‘peace of mind’ when they work with Kodak. In a time of uncertainty, publicly owned and independent cinema chains find our offer of a ‘fully integrated solution backed by Kodak’ compelling. They trust the Kodak brand.”

With the largest single increase in THX-certified screens in several years, including 200 more for a total of over 500 at Cinemark and Century theatres out of some 2,000 worldwide, the THX team had every reason to celebrate at ShoWest. New marketing materials include two debut trailers—with Horton hearing a deep-noted “Who,” plus an opportunity for circuit co-branding—and redesigned lobby posters, not to mention the larger-than-life-sized mascot Tex at their tradeshow booth.

“THX is really focusing on re-engaging the client base,” declares sales VP Robert Hewitt, who is working with studios and exhibitors to promote the brand and “communicate the value of THX in the cinema.” A study conducted last year by Nielsen NRG revealed that the audience indeed recognizes the difference. The results show how U.S. moviegoers associate THX with the best sound systems, excellent picture quality, the most advanced technologies and a more exciting moviegoing experience.

“We are about the total experience of sound and picture quality,” Hewitt states. “Whereas in a commercial theatre, you might have a broader tolerance for what would be considered acceptable, we still hold very strict standards.” Although THX does not plan to engage in DCI-compliance testing and certification, the company’s seal of approval will be including digital projection.

At the same time, “we’ve been a little more open in working with some of the theatre owners” on pricing for first-time and/or re-certification, notes Graham McKenna, senior manager, global PR. The THX Cinema Services Group as well has been gearing up “to go out for installs of digital-cinema projectors and other technical work that is not necessarily tied to just the certification.”

Founded last year, this division is now headed by Andrew Poulain as account executive, professional services. “With digital cinema, we now have 24-bit uncompressed audio,” he enthuses. “We’ve taken a leap forward in terms of the sound quality.” Nonetheless, “unlike the early 1990s when digital sound was the king that was driving a lot of the new business, right now it is playing second fiddle in the digital-cinema chain.” Just don’t let Horton hear that!

After all this talk of in-theatre technology, let’s conclude our whirlwind ShoWest tour with a company whose technology reaches moviegoers where they live. Online ticketing leader has also benefited from the new success of digital 3D—most specifically with the recent limited engagement of the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana concert movie. advance sales accounted for some 30% of the Disney release’s total box office, according to Walt Borchers, senior VP of sales and marketing, compared to its customary 10% on major tentpole films.

“When parents are faced with the prospect of not performing for their kids, they’re gonna find a way to do it, and we were the easiest way,” explains Borchers about MovieTickets’ role in the teen phenomenon.

Borchers points out that in major moviegoing markets like Manhattan, MovieTickets,com will grab about 20% of sales on hot films, “because if you don’t get your tickets in advance, you’re not going to the movies… You wouldn’t go to dinner without reservations, why would you chance missing a movie?”

The biggest challenge, he says, is attracting customers in the rest of the country, where the perception is there’s no need to buy tickets in advance. “And it’s not the dollar service charge that precluding people from buying tickets. We’ve had exhibitors waive it as a test, and it didn’t make a difference. It’s just a matter of education.”

Still, Borchers says, “We’ve seen incredible growth over the past five years. We started out with two or three exhibitors and now we’re up to 115.” averages about 200,000 new users a month, he estimates, and currently attracts about eight million avid moviegoers.

In the coming months, the company will be relaunching its website with more user-generated content, and it already includes a ratings and review section which Borchers says “has gone through the roof. People want to be heard.”

The ticketing site also conducts polls, stages promotional contests, and is launching mobile applications. Online affiliates include AOL Moviefone, MSN Movies, Yahoo Movies and MySpace. Though the main goal remains to provide a convenient ticketing service, the relaunch is seeking to create a unique niche. Says Borcher, “We’re looking to make synonymous with the moviegoing experience.”