Always Evolving: Ballantyne Strong continues to meet theatres’ technology demands

Features
Technology

Many cinema industry insiders are familiar with Ballantyne Strong and its diversified business offerings. The company has been helping movie theatre owners entertain their valued filmgoing guests for the past 85 years and it has a rich and interesting history, which closely parallels the growth of the cinema and exhibition industries.

Ballantyne’s Beginnings

Back in 1932, Nebraska native Robert Scott Ballantyne established the Scott-Ballantyne Company in the city of Omaha, where it still maintains its corporate roots. He originally launched his motion picture theatre supply house to manufacture both sound and air-conditioning equipment. Six years later, Scott-Ballantyne began marketing its own 35mm projector.

Shortly thereafter, it joined forces with another Nebraska-based business to market and later manufacture a line of amplifiers and soundheads. During the World War II era, almost all of the company’s production was focused on supporting the armed forces, but by war's end the company was ready to take advantage of the new postwar rage: the drive-in theatre. By the late 1940s, Ballantyne had equipped one-third of the nation’s nearly 850 drive-ins, which were all the rage back then.

As the calendar turned to the early 1950s, Scott-Ballantyne provided turnkey solutions to drive-in theatre operators, including speakers, projectors, amplifiers, pole-mounted junction boxes and even pre-manufactured screen towers. The company also positioned itself to keep pace with new technological developments in improved indoor sound by manufacturing systems featuring four- and six-channel amplifiers.

In the early 1960s, in order to capture a portion of the concession business that accompanied drive-ins, the company further expanded its arsenal to include pressure fryers and subsequently production of rotisserie and barbecue ovens.

Today, the company is known as Ballantyne Strong and it operates three principal business units. It is one of the leading manufacturers of custom and pro-AV projection screens via its Strong MDI unit (based in Joliette, Canada), supplying seven of the world’s top ten theatre chains. Strong Technical Services (headquartered in Omaha) provides maintenance and network operation support for cinemas on a national basis. Also in Omaha is Strong Distribution, a Value Added Reseller (VAR) of various equipment produced by an array of manufacturers, supplying many of the world’s cinemas.

Projection Systems

According to Ray Boegner, president of Ballantyne’s Cinema Group and a seasoned exec with more than 30 years of tenure, “With the conversion from film to digital having been completed or sometime soon, the entire landscape has changed from an equipment sales standpoint. The projector manufacturers are pushing new lines of laser light-based systems to replace xenon ones, but exhibition really isn’t biting much on this new technology.”

He continues, “To start with, there is currently very little, if any, cost savings to be realized with changing to laser, especially in the smaller systems where xenon lamps are relatively inexpensive and carry lengthy warranties. Secondly, this time the conversion will be on the exhibitor’s nickel and not the studios’, in my opinion!

“In the really large PLF auditoriums we have seen some interest in laser projectors. In those auditoriums that are currently using two xenon projectors to meet lighting requirements, a single 35,000 to 40,000-lumen laser system will sometimes provide sufficient illumination and actually have a long-term cost benefit over xenon.”

Another catalyst for projector sales is new-build construction and remodels. Says Boegner, “Yes, there are still a few new complexes being built here in the U.S. The problem is that for every complex that opens, one usually closes. When that happens, the exhibitor is typically taking projectors from the complex they closed and moving them to the one that is opening.”  

Boegner does not foresee this practice changing anytime soon, providing manufacturers continue supporting their older projectors from a parts standpoint. Back in the good ol’ film days, exhibitors expected their 35mm machines to outlive their grandchildren, he reminisces.

“Similar to the lack of switching from xenon to laser, there has been little to no upgrading from 2K to 4K from an exhibition standpoint. What we have seen is exhibitors opting for 4K projectors in their PLF [Premium Large Format] auditoriums. I wouldn’t say this is so much related to the projector being able to present in 4K as it is to the fact that the 4K machine projects more light due to the larger chips, and that is what the exhibitor is looking for from a presentation standpoint.”

Service with a Smile

Strong’s NOC and Field Service units fold into its Strong Technical Services Group. Having their own internal Network Operations Center has proven to be very complementary to the company’s Services Group. “We are able to solve in excess of 50 percent of all field service problems through our NOC,” states Boegner. “This eliminates putting ‘feet on the street’ and has the exhibitor back up and on the screen much faster than if we had to dispatch a technician.”

It will be interesting to see what exhibitors do as they start to come off the various VPF programs where NOC service has been a requirement. NOC service is typically not an expensive insurance policy for the theatre owner, running between $1 and $3 a day per screen, based on level of service desired. Dispatching a technician, on the other hand, always runs in the multi-hundred-dollar range if your complex is not covered under some sort of maintenance contract. Boegner adds, “I guess it all boils down to how much of a gambler you want to be!”

Cinema Screens Unit

Ballantyne’s MDI division has seen tremendous overall growth in its screen business over the last several years. The big driver was the conversion requirement that allowed theatres to show passive 3D. A few years back, MDI developed a new screen called Premium HGA, which has somewhat become the standard on PLFs across the world.

“We have also entered the screen structure or screen frame business and build what is considered the Cadillac of ‘wraparound’ frames—we may not be the cheapest frame but we are definitely the best. Just ask any installer,” Boegner states with pride.

Digital Signage Division

The days of posters showing the coming attractions are numbered, according to Boegner. “They will soon be replaced by flat panels and the coming attractions will actually be a mini-trailer. Let’s be realistic about it, most poster cases actually cost more than a comparable-sized flat panel these days. We see a big change on the horizon, especially in new construction.”

It is feasible that you could even see some type of VPF program to help fund it. Posters aren’t cheap to make and distribute and they are only one picture versus a collage of the whole movie.

The hardware portion of digital signage for cinemas has become a very competitive market. According to Boegner, “There has been lots of pricing pressure and constant technology changes.” The part of the signage business for cinemas that is unique is content creation and content management. “A handful of companies, including ours, do a decent job and truly understand the movie exhibitor’s needs,” he adds.

Crystal Ball Predictions

“The cinema business isn’t going away anytime real soon,” opines Boegner. “It has been around for a long time and historically been slow to change. It is one of the few businesses that I can think of whose entire success or failure is based upon something they [the exhibitors] have no control over. You can have the nicest theatre in the world with Italian marble foyers, leather recliners, Dolby Atmos sound and laser projection, but if what you are showing isn’t what the audience wants to see, then those seats are going to be empty and there will be no concession sales.

“Over the years, exhibitors have been reluctant to make dramatic capital investments unless they could see a return at the box office in ticket sales. That has changed somewhat with the current seating revolution. If you don’t have the electric recliners that your competitor has up the street, you are probably losing market share and you will need to spend some money just to get back to where you were and in a lot of cases without increasing ticket pricing!

“One thing that gets overlooked is cinema cleanliness, both in the auditoriums and common areas such as the concession stand and restrooms. Cleaning isn’t that difficult and doesn’t take that much time, but it needs to be done between every show—no excuses! Keeping the concession area clean has hidden benefits such as increased sales, but it is especially difficult during busy times.

“I used to tell people that a cinema was a candy store with entertainment, which it actually was. But those times have changed and will continue to change. The cinema is becoming a one-stop entertainment venue not unlike the ballpark. Now you can get beer, wine, cocktails, pizza and many other items to enjoy before, during and after the actual movie. 

“I’m thinking that virtual-reality simulators might have a big impact on the millennial moviegoer, especially. Some big companies are spending a lot of money and engineering efforts are turning this into a reality. The other product still in the infancy stage is movable chairs that are sequenced to the movie audio and video tracks. These are becoming very popular amongst millennials, and per-seat occupancy per movie is through the roof in certain markets such as L.A. and New York. This is not a cheap seat and the upcharge to the patron is as much or more than watching in the IMAX format.

 

“Today’s exhibitors are smart people and they are constantly trying to keep ahead of the curve and make their venue the best they can, in hopes that Hollywood will produce movies that people want to see. This year has been slow at the box office, but this is nothing new—it really only takes a few good movies to turn that around and they will come along as they always do. Paying ten to fifteen dollars for that luxury recliner and a two-hour moviegoing experience is by far a much better value proposition than paying one hundred dollars for a nosebleed section, hard-back seat to watch many sporting events. Theatre exhibitors have and will continue to improve the experience—just give them good movies and count the box-office returns.”Many cinema industry insiders are familiar with Ballantyne Strong and its diversified business offerings. The company has been helping movie theatre owners entertain their valued filmgoing guests for the past 85 years and it has a rich and interesting history, which closely parallels the growth of the cinema and exhibition industries.

 

Ballantyne’s Beginnings

Back in 1932, Nebraska native Robert Scott Ballantyne established the Scott-Ballantyne Company in the city of Omaha, where it still maintains its corporate roots. He originally launched his motion picture theatre supply house to manufacture both sound and air-conditioning equipment. Six years later, Scott-Ballantyne began marketing its own 35mm projector.

Shortly thereafter, it joined forces with another Nebraska-based business to market and later manufacture a line of amplifiers and soundheads. During the World War II era, almost all of the company’s production was focused on supporting the armed forces, but by war's end the company was ready to take advantage of the new postwar rage: the drive-in theatre. By the late 1940s, Ballantyne had equipped one-third of the nation’s nearly 850 drive-ins, which were all the rage back then.

As the calendar turned to the early 1950s, Scott-Ballantyne provided turnkey solutions to drive-in theatre operators, including speakers, projectors, amplifiers, pole-mounted junction boxes and even pre-manufactured screen towers. The company also positioned itself to keep pace with new technological developments in improved indoor sound by manufacturing systems featuring four- and six-channel amplifiers.

In the early 1960s, in order to capture a portion of the concession business that accompanied drive-ins, the company further expanded its arsenal to include pressure fryers and subsequently production of rotisserie and barbecue ovens.

Today, the company is known as Ballantyne Strong and it operates three principal business units. It is one of the leading manufacturers of custom and pro-AV projection screens via its Strong MDI unit (based in Joliette, Canada), supplying seven of the world’s top ten theatre chains. Strong Technical Services (headquartered in Omaha) provides maintenance and network operation support for cinemas on a national basis. Also in Omaha is Strong Distribution, a Value Added Reseller (VAR) of various equipment produced by an array of manufacturers, supplying many of the world’s cinemas.

Projection Systems

According to Ray Boegner, president of Ballantyne’s Cinema Group and a seasoned exec with more than 30 years of tenure, “With the conversion from film to digital having been completed or sometime soon, the entire landscape has changed from an equipment sales standpoint. The projector manufacturers are pushing new lines of laser light-based systems to replace xenon ones, but exhibition really isn’t biting much on this new technology.”

He continues, “To start with, there is currently very little, if any, cost savings to be realized with changing to laser, especially in the smaller systems where xenon lamps are relatively inexpensive and carry lengthy warranties. Secondly, this time the conversion will be on the exhibitor’s nickel and not the studios’, in my opinion!

“In the really large PLF auditoriums we have seen some interest in laser projectors. In those auditoriums that are currently using two xenon projectors to meet lighting requirements, a single 35,000 to 40,000-lumen laser system will sometimes provide sufficient illumination and actually have a long-term cost benefit over xenon.”

Another catalyst for projector sales is new-build construction and remodels. Says Boegner, “Yes, there are still a few new complexes being built here in the U.S. The problem is that for every complex that opens, one usually closes. When that happens, the exhibitor is typically taking projectors from the complex they closed and moving them to the one that is opening.”  

Boegner does not foresee this practice changing anytime soon, providing manufacturers continue supporting their older projectors from a parts standpoint. Back in the good ol’ film days, exhibitors expected their 35mm machines to outlive their grandchildren, he reminisces.

“Similar to the lack of switching from xenon to laser, there has been little to no upgrading from 2K to 4K from an exhibition standpoint. What we have seen is exhibitors opting for 4K projectors in their PLF [Premium Large Format] auditoriums. I wouldn’t say this is so much related to the projector being able to present in 4K as it is to the fact that the 4K machine projects more light due to the larger chips, and that is what the exhibitor is looking for from a presentation standpoint.”

Service with a Smile

Strong’s NOC and Field Service units fold into its Strong Technical Services Group. Having their own internal Network Operations Center has proven to be very complementary to the company’s Services Group. “We are able to solve in excess of 50 percent of all field service problems through our NOC,” states Boegner. “This eliminates putting ‘feet on the street’ and has the exhibitor back up and on the screen much faster than if we had to dispatch a technician.”

It will be interesting to see what exhibitors do as they start to come off the various VPF programs where NOC service has been a requirement. NOC service is typically not an expensive insurance policy for the theatre owner, running between $1 and $3 a day per screen, based on level of service desired. Dispatching a technician, on the other hand, always runs in the multi-hundred-dollar range if your complex is not covered under some sort of maintenance contract. Boegner adds, “I guess it all boils down to how much of a gambler you want to be!”

Cinema Screens Unit

Ballantyne’s MDI division has seen tremendous overall growth in its screen business over the last several years. The big driver was the conversion requirement that allowed theatres to show passive 3D. A few years back, MDI developed a new screen called Premium HGA, which has somewhat become the standard on PLFs across the world.

“We have also entered the screen structure or screen frame business and build what is considered the Cadillac of ‘wraparound’ frames—we may not be the cheapest frame but we are definitely the best. Just ask any installer,” Boegner states with pride.

Digital Signage Division

The days of posters showing the coming attractions are numbered, according to Boegner. “They will soon be replaced by flat panels and the coming attractions will actually be a mini-trailer. Let’s be realistic about it, most poster cases actually cost more than a comparable-sized flat panel these days. We see a big change on the horizon, especially in new construction.”

It is feasible that you could even see some type of VPF program to help fund it. Posters aren’t cheap to make and distribute and they are only one picture versus a collage of the whole movie.

The hardware portion of digital signage for cinemas has become a very competitive market. According to Boegner, “There has been lots of pricing pressure and constant technology changes.” The part of the signage business for cinemas that is unique is content creation and content management. “A handful of companies, including ours, do a decent job and truly understand the movie exhibitor’s needs,” he adds.

Crystal Ball Predictions

“The cinema business isn’t going away anytime real soon,” opines Boegner. “It has been around for a long time and historically been slow to change. It is one of the few businesses that I can think of whose entire success or failure is based upon something they [the exhibitors] have no control over. You can have the nicest theatre in the world with Italian marble foyers, leather recliners, Dolby Atmos sound and laser projection, but if what you are showing isn’t what the audience wants to see, then those seats are going to be empty and there will be no concession sales.

“Over the years, exhibitors have been reluctant to make dramatic capital investments unless they could see a return at the box office in ticket sales. That has changed somewhat with the current seating revolution. If you don’t have the electric recliners that your competitor has up the street, you are probably losing market share and you will need to spend some money just to get back to where you were and in a lot of cases without increasing ticket pricing!

“One thing that gets overlooked is cinema cleanliness, both in the auditoriums and common areas such as the concession stand and restrooms. Cleaning isn’t that difficult and doesn’t take that much time, but it needs to be done between every show—no excuses! Keeping the concession area clean has hidden benefits such as increased sales, but it is especially difficult during busy times.

“I used to tell people that a cinema was a candy store with entertainment, which it actually was. But those times have changed and will continue to change. The cinema is becoming a one-stop entertainment venue not unlike the ballpark. Now you can get beer, wine, cocktails, pizza and many other items to enjoy before, during and after the actual movie. 

“I’m thinking that virtual-reality simulators might have a big impact on the millennial moviegoer, especially. Some big companies are spending a lot of money and engineering efforts are turning this into a reality. The other product still in the infancy stage is movable chairs that are sequenced to the movie audio and video tracks. These are becoming very popular amongst millennials, and per-seat occupancy per movie is through the roof in certain markets such as L.A. and New York. This is not a cheap seat and the upcharge to the patron is as much or more than watching in the IMAX format.

“Today’s exhibitors are smart people and they are constantly trying to keep ahead of the curve and make their venue the best they can, in hopes that Hollywood will produce movies that people want to see. This year has been slow at the box office, but this is nothing new—it really only takes a few good movies to turn that around and they will come along as they always do. Paying ten to fifteen dollars for that luxury recliner and a two-hour moviegoing experience is by far a much better value proposition than paying one hundred dollars for a nosebleed section, hard-back seat to watch many sporting events. Theatre exhibitors have and will continue to improve the experience—just give them good movies and count the box-office returns.”