Ready for the rollout in Reading

R/C Theatres debuts deluxe all-digital mulitplex in Pennsylvania

On August 8, as billions were watching the opening celebrations of the 2008 Olympic Games, thousands of people lined up around the block and came to enjoy the first screenings at R/C Theatres Movies 11 with IMAX in Reading. Both in Beijing and that Pennsylvania city, technology history was written on that day. Film Journal International was there to record it and talked to those who made it.

Christie Digital Systems not only provided the giant images at the Beijing National Stadium (as reported in our October issue), but simultaneously lit up ten screens at R/C Theatres, which went all-out digital for the first time, with only one 35mm console installed. The 44,000-sq.-ft. complex with 1,800 high-back rocking chairs, arcade and party room also represents R/C’s first foray into large-format, to be detailed later in this article.

Also premiering in Reading was a new experience in sound. “This is indeed the first theatre complex where all the conventional auditoria are d-cinema and HPS-4000 equipped,” confirms John F. Allen, developer, founder and president of High Performance Stereo. “Moviegoers will therefore be assured a presentation quality that is second to none in the world, even better than the studios’, and far superior to home theatres.”

“Sound is a big part of the movie,” concurs J. Wayne Anderson, “and nobody can compete with John Allen’s system for any type of music. It’s just second to none.” Anderson, the chairman of Reisterstown, Maryland-based R/C Theatres Management Corp., which operates 139 screens at 21 sites, including two more HPS-4000 equipped in Wilkes-Barre and Gettysburg, PA, is well-known and respected in the exhibition industry for his technical expertise. To call this decidedly high standard of theatre outfitting a humble “technically correct,” speaks volumes. “I am a firm believer that as an exhibitor it is our job to give to the patrons what the creative community meant for them to see,” Anderson says. “If you don’t do that, you are kind of cheating the public.”

Nonetheless, what Anderson likes best about the Reading Movies is “the start of redevelopment of the downtown area. I enjoy going in and trying to help revitalize some of these old towns that have been kind of let go when everything was moving out to the suburbs.” The importance of this opening for the city was underlined by the great number of local dignitaries and politicians who attended the event, including the Honorable Edward G. Rendell, Governor of Pennsylvania. In his speech, Mayor Tom McMahon fondly recalled going to downtown Reading movie houses, of which there were 11. By one of those wonderful twists of fate, there are as many again under one roof today, he pointed out.

And what a roof it is. Although flat and modern as a purpose-built multiplex cinema building is expected to be, the Art Deco/Moderne–accented façade also anticipates the story that lies behind it. The huge marquee above the entrance draws crowds, who have several convenient parking garages to choose from (three hours are free), to the world of entertainment. Just like the olden days, there are bright lights, plenty of neon and pulsating lines and wiggles. Instead of hook-up (or slide-in) letters and hand painted cut-outs, however, the attractions panel is fully electronic.

Having only one 35mm Christie projector installed is a dramatic change from just a year ago, Anderson admits. “There are still distributors, mostly the independents, who go with 35mm film only. We just didn’t want to short ourselves not being able to show those kinds of movies. I believe the 35mm projector will be there for a while still, as film won’t really stop being until maybe eight to 15 years down the road. It all depends, obviously, on when the massive rollout will begin.”

For their part, R/C Theatres have clearly stepped forward into the digital world (more details in our installation sidebar). “Yes, we financed this all ourselves,” he responds when asked about the business model. “And, yes, we do not receive any virtual-print-fee payments for that.” Speaking as an individual theatre operator and not on behalf of the Cinema Buying Group (CBG) that he heads as chairman, “In my opinion, that is totally wrong,” he insists. “However, the way studios are set up at this point is not to pay VPFs to exhibitors…without going through third parties or for something that they want. I have said all along that if we received a ten percent reduction in film rental, we wouldn’t have to worry about any integrator.” This said, R/C Movies 11 “are set up and made ready to roll right into the AccessIT deal once that becomes available.”

“Christie provided hardware and software products similar to previous AccessIT deployments and acted as the integrator of the project,” confirms Keith Watanabe, senior manager of cinema sales, Entertainment Solutions, Christie Digital Systems. The decision was based on several factors, he says. “First, they considered that Christie had the most experience out in the field because of our involvement with the first digital rollout with AccessIT. Secondly, since CBG selected AccessIT as their integrator for the rollout of digital cinema, they saw key advantages to selecting Christie.”

Even though “there was no requirement to use our equipment,” Watanabe believes that “the decision to install Christie projectors speaks a great deal to Christie's reputation for excellence and the quality of our products. As well, with more than 80% of all digital-cinema installations in the world featuring Christie projectors, we bring a proven record of success working with exhibitors at all stages of the process that is unmatched in the industry.”

About the practical implications, Christie project manager Aaron Wesener points out, “Typically, digital cinema takes a bit longer to install than 35mm film, because there are a lot more critical connections and wiring to consider. For digital, on average, we can complete about two to four screens per day. This installation went fairly smooth, without any major delays, and we were able to complete it in about a week.”

As part of the integration, Christie installed the network infrastructure and deployed the servers as well. “Certain similarity exists in the initial stage of installing 35mm and digital,” Wesener continues. “For example, doing site surveys, hiring general contractors or overseeing the exhibitor’s subcontractors, preparing the booths and projector set-ups. If we're converting an existing 35mm install to a digital system, a lot more is involved than just swapping out the projector. We also have to ensure compatibility with current equipment and tie in with existing systems and projectors.”

“Whether installing 35mm or digital cinema, it is very important to understand the exhibitors’ needs and how they want to deploy their systems,” Watanabe adds. “In the past, exhibitors wanted to install digital side-by-side with film projectors, and eventually remove the 35mm. The reason for this was the lack of sufficient digital content to keep the projectors running full-time. Now that the digital content is not an issue, digital cinema has proven to be a better value proposition, and increasingly [as shown in FJI’s September interview with Christie’s Craig Sholder] new theatre constructions are opting for digital-cinema technology.”

On the audio side, explains John Allen, “there is no difference in the requirements of sound systems designed for d-cinema or 35mm. However, the uncompressed d-cinema soundtracks themselves are far superior to the highly compressed digital soundtracks of 35mm release prints.” Furthermore, he feels, “The sad truth is that the majority of today's movie theatre sound systems are incapable of delivering the sound quality available from [these] digital soundtracks, whether they be compressed or not.” The one major difference in designing sound systems in d-cinema theatres, he cautions, “lies in the electrical grounding of the sound systems, especially if they are connected in a network.”

Obviously having done his job, Allen reports with pride, “The people from Christie said that they have never heard sound that good in any other theatre anywhere.”

With 12,000 watts of sound coming from IMAX proprietary systems, the 346-seat IMAX auditorium—obviously purpose-built and not a conversion, featuring a 42 x 70-foot screen (13 x 21 m)—is the physical and promotional center of the complex, even though it has not yet gone digital. Anderson and R/C had to opt for the traditional 15/70mm film set-up, “as the lamp that is required for that kind of house was not yet available.” Further complicating the matter was Harry Potter and not just because he couldn’t wave his magic wand to make digital cinema happen. “We really did not want to miss out on The Half-Blood Prince in IMAX for the holidays and then the date was moved,” Anderson says, expressing the disappointment that many exhibitors have felt. “But that’s Hollywood for you… Otherwise, I probably would’ve waited to put digital in, because hauling that film equipment in and taking it out in a year or so is a lot of work.” In any event, he does feel that “IMAX certainly makes a difference in the public’s mind. And anything that creates excitement is good for our business.”

The great selection of recent films at a highly discounted price as the opening attractions proved to be another excitement generator. The first two-and-a-half days saw almost 23,000 people attending, Wayne Anderson happily reports. Even better, proceeds from the festival were donated to Will Rogers Motion Pioneers “to support our industry” and to the neighboring community college to show even more local good will. “It not only helps the charities, but helps us too in training our people. And, boy, did this train our people. We were swamped,” he enthuses.