Gathering Momentum: Cinemas explore sustainability measures


The world’s leading businesses, from the largest corporations to the corner coffee shop, are moving forward with sustainability programs that improve their business operations and serve their marketplace and surrounding communities in more efficient and less wasteful ways.

The exhibition industry is supported and surrounded by suppliers who have comprehensive multi-year sustainability programs for reducing their energy use and shrinking the carbon footprint of their business and products. There has never been a better time to examine your cinema operations and develop a sustainability plan that fits your business and join like programs being delivered across the industry.

Sustainability for business includes setting goals for progress socially, environmentally and economically. It is a continuous program with ongoing measurement and revision for new opportunities, and to make adjustments for improved payback models, market conditions and regulatory changes.

Sustainability and the environment are important concerns of the younger key cinema demographic, and their attention here will only grow as they become the “climate-change generation.”

Beyond energy cost savings and environmental gains, your business will benefit from employees that are highly engaged and outperform the norm. Media opportunities, including combined partner/supplier initiatives, can generate positive community and customer support for your business. On other levels, sustainability program review is now part of investor due diligence.

There is a lot of sustainability momentum gathering round the exhibition business.

Energy and waste handling are the main elements of a cinema’s environmental footprint, and step one is all about lowering your energy cost by reducing consumption over all areas of operation.

Waste handling, which covers the providing, recycling and disposal of all materials consumed within the business, is a major topic in itself, and with its best days ahead as cinemas continue to work with suppliers, their own operations, and local waste processors to advance their efficiency in this area.

This discussion will only look at energy use and sustainability opportunities–turning energy and cost savings into a “cleaner”-running cinema complex with a smaller carbon footprint.

Better Buildings

In North America there are only a small number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified cinema complexes. The LEED rating system establishes standards and promotes “green building” practices and environmental leadership within the building industry, and provides a mark of design and construction excellence. While there are many benefits, a LEED program brings additional cost and complexity to a cinema project and is most easily embraced (sometimes mandated) when the cinema development is part of a larger LEED-driven project. The good news, from those that have taken the LEED path, is that the “best returning” design specs and benefits can be realized in other cinema builds without the overheads of the certification process. Whereas many commercial buildings require LEED certification for tenant lease requirements or market advantage, this is not driving cinema LEED projects.

Another important observation covers what is currently very popular within the cinema development business. This is the complete overhaul and renovation of auditoriums, or complete complexes, to modernize and raise the customer experience with luxury seating, new fixtures, added food services, and the latest in projection and audio technologies. Industry architect Michael Cummings of TK Architects in Kansas City considers this a perfect and high-ranking sustainability example as the building is “reused, in place” rather than torn down or moved.

So, given the opportunity for either planning an efficient new build or modernizing an existing property, what are the primary sustainable design and outfitting opportunities available to exhibitors? (And recall, it’s nearly always about energy efficiency.)


Lighting tops the “easy with simple payback” list and many exhibitors have already completed significant change-outs to highly efficient and very long-lasting LED lamps. Autosensing switches and timers are used wherever possible. These improvements have already resulted in major kWh (kilowatt-hour) reductions and energy cost savings for cinema operators, as well as significant carbon offsets.

Almost every zone of a cinema complex can gain from LED retrofitting. Auditorium LEDs have the added benefit of years of operation without replacement but require special dimming hardware and lamp selection to operate effectively as dimmable show lighting.


Depending on the region and season, a building’s peak energy costs are driven by either lighting or HVAC services. Upgrading the building envelope provides a first opportunity for efficiency gains with minimal incremental cost.

Theatres need to insure their mechanical system provider is using the most up-to-date design standards, and providing efficiency-driven equipment options directed towards optimizing total building performance and energy use.

All areas of the complex can be programmed to deliver viewer comfort in sync with show programming, and real-time adjustment to visitor occupancy levels using simple sensing systems. During non-show times, HVAC settings are eased to match the season and reduce non-occupied room energy costs.

Digital projection systems have simpler exhausting requirements and newer air-handling systems are eliminating direct-to-outdoors exhausting and incorporating the warm, dry projector air into the main building HVAC system. This results in better humidity control and air quality, as well as operational savings. Next-generation projection and audio systems, running in closed and unattended spaces, will simplify these opportunities even further. With the right approach, today’s HVAC systems can be expected to operate using 30 to 50% less energy than those of a decade ago.

Proper commissioning to fully test and optimize a modern HVAC system to operate at its designed efficiency does pay back and saves on later problems.

During any major theatre renovation, the existing HVAC systems should be reviewed for possible upgrading or change-out when efficiency savings vs. payback numbers work for the operating life of the renovated space.

Audio Systems

Audio systems have quietly become a significant power-saving opportunity with the availability of new Class-D or switching amplifiers, which approach 90% efficiency delivering significant power savings and lower heat rejection to the building HVAC system. As an example, audio system supplier QSC estimates that “using their DPA amplifiers in a typical medium-sized cinema would result in current requirements 57% lower and a total heat loss of 76% less than with conventional amplifier designs.”

Additionally, these devices are more compact, lighter weight for a given power output, and ideal for small booth and boothless setups. Extra features such as multiple channels per device, and integrated signal processing provide for further compactness. Also becoming popular, and useful for attendant-free operation, are networkable models allowing remote monitoring and control for quality assurance and power savings management.

QSC’s Mark Mayfield states, “We have seen a huge uptake of our new class D power amplifiers over the past two years for both new builds and immersive sound retrofitting. Cinema operators will benefit from substantial energy savings over the life of these products given their amazing operational efficiencies.”

Projectors and Laser Illumination

Xenon projection illumination has had a great run, and these lamps will be around for many years to come, but in a sustainable world the shift is over to laser.

Laser-illuminated projection entered the cinema world broadly in 2015 with multiple product introductions covering opposite sized auditoriums. For the biggest screens, high-performing RGB laser systems project new levels of image quality in premium large format (PLF) houses. At the other end, new laser phosphor (LP) based systems are beginning to be installed into smaller-screen auditoriums, and are seeing widespread use in professional AV installations. This year will offer a number of new laser phosphor product launches from all the vendors with ever-increasing lumen outputs.

Operationally, laser illumination has been highlighted for eliminating lamps, their change-out costs, and doing away with shipping and waste processing. They also provide for years of uninterrupted operation and cater to building cost savings from boothless, or small operator-free booths.

Reduced power consumption is a benefit of some systems and a goal for all. As a next step in facilitating wider laser adoption, system providers are moving towards total cost of ownership (TCO) models that will pass an exhibitor’s careful cost review and move these products into the mainstream.

Barco recently announced a major laser milestone with the upcoming opening of the world’s first all-laser projection cinema complex at Texas exhibitor Santikos’ new Casa Blanca site in San Antonio. This 16-plex will utilize both RGB and laser phosphor illuminated Barco projectors.

This is just the beginning of many laser debuts for 2016 and foreshadows a time, in the not too distant future, when, as Christie’s Don Shaw projects, “all exhibitors will be able to benefit from reduced cinema construction costs and significant operational savings as only laser-illuminated projectors are being shipped.” In the near term, Christie is demonstrating their new 10,000-lumen laser phosphor cinema projector and will begin shipping units in June.

It is envisioned that widespread adoption of operationally friendly, energy-efficient and image-improving laser-based projectors will coincide with the future replacement of lamp-based first-generation digital projectors as they reach end of lifetime and the laser projector energy savings help to underwrite change-out costs.

Projection Booth Power Savings and Automation

Equipment efficiency gains are providing energy-savings opportunities during show operation, but systems, both new and old, are often left running during down times, wasting both electricity and HVAC servicing. This waste carries a financial cost, especially in international markets where energy costs can be two to three times that of North America. Wasted energy is also damaging to a cinema’s carbon footprint.

Moving iMage Technologies, seeing the need to provide exhibitors with effective energy-saving opportunities, has recently rolled out several new “energy-conscious” products that specifically address booth power savings, given the realities of today’s unattended show operation.

This suite of power management products covers a range of devices that automatically power-control audio systems as per daily opening and closing times. Another cinema-specific controller had been developed to provide on-demand control of projector exhausting and stop conditioned air from leaving the booth when cooling is not required. Programing these systems “off” when “dark” can save thousands of dollars in annual operating costs.

Interior Finishes and Materials

It used to be that environmentally “friendly” materials and finishes used in outfitting a theatre carried a notable premium for having recycled content, sustainably sourced substrates and low VOC emissions. Given ongoing producer improvements and increased demand, the cost increment today is negligible and they should be a part of any materials spec list.

Water Conservation

Water use and conservation has become a significant operations concern in meeting legislated restrictions and minimizing consumption within the local community. Low-flow toilets and taps, as well as waterless fixtures, are becoming the norm for new builds and retrofits. Water-reclamation systems are worth considering in some locations as part of a new-build design review.

Energy Sourcing

Rooftop solar power generation has been embraced by only a few exhibitors, representing both the largest and smallest of cinemas. These installations provide their communities with an immediate feed of clean energy, which is usually delivered into the local grid with supply credits going back to the theatre.

Solar installations use various forms of long-term agreements, often between the building owner and system provider, with the cinema as a partner player. The cinema still benefits from community interest, local publicity and carbon credits along with the underwriting provider.

The continuing expansion of both large-scale and local rooftop solar power generation, along with ongoing tax credits and local subsidies, continues to shorten the payback and cost of these systems.

Sourcing energy from third-party renewable sources rather than carbon-emitting utilities is another popular option for accessing clean energy and offsetting the carbon footprint.


* Many businesses are building their sustainability programs around goals to be achieved by 2020 as an effective way to plan and set realizable targets for their operations and employees.

* Regulatory changes will continue to raise building construction and operational requirements.

* Use sustainability experts to work with your team in assessing your operation, analyzing opportunities vs. savings and capital expense payback, as well as setting a workable pace and program.

* Maximize available tax credits, subsidies and grants: Governments and equipment providers are facilitating installation of the “cleanest” and highest-efficiency systems as part of broad environmental and carbon-reduction commitments.

* Energy is becoming cleaner but not cheaper. Sustainability through efficiency is the business model for the future.

Special Focus: How Cinemark Went Green

Within North America, major exhibitor Cinemark is leading the way in sustainability implementation with their Cinemark “Reel Green” program that includes multiple initiatives recycling and energy efficiency. The company was recently recognized for these efforts as a 2015 “Star of Energy Efficiency” award winner in receiving the Build Environment Award from the Alliance to Save Energy for their program which “saved 41,570,375 kWh and $4.4 million through facility energy-efficiency upgrades over the past year.”

Art Justice, Cinemark’s VP of energy and sustainability, explains, “Cinemark cares about environmental sustainability. Having a clear and committed program focused on sustainability helps us focus on initiatives that generate interest among our staff members, as well as our shareholders. These programs generate positive community and customer feedback. They also result in significant cost savings with a reduced carbon footprint. Cinemark continues to push energy efficiency through retrofits as well as new construction. At the same time, we augment efficiency with renewable energy consumption with rooftop solar installations and green power procurement.”

For review of Cinemark’s current and future initiatives, and to view the energy output and carbon saving of their 11 rooftop solar installations, visit

Paul Panabaker has three decades of experience in the development, rollout and operation of innovative cinemas and pioneering technologies. Today he is applying his technical and business experience towards shaping the strategies and steps towards a sustainable and progressive exhibition industry. Contact him at