The bigger, the better: Exhibitors super-size the movie experience


Part 1: “The First and the Fast”—Cinemark XD and Marcus UltraScreen

Our industry is all about the screen. And the sound, of course, and the movies, and the popcorn. And let’s not forget seating and customer service.

While Film Journal International covers one and all, in our latest series we decided to project the very big picture. Benefitting again from the deployment of digital equipment, cinemas have begun implementing expanded technology in new concepts that set out to supersize their screens: AMC ETX, Carmike’s BigD, Cinemark XD, Cinemagic SXHD, Cinemagnum, Cineplex UltraAVX, Consolidated Titan XC, Marcus UltraScreen, Regal RPX and VueXtreme are current examples of branding a bigger and better theatrical experience. (Like UltraScreen® at Marcus Theatres, most of these large-format and experiential brands featured in our series are protected trademarks and/or service marks of their respective operators.)

While this certainly represents an industry-defining trend, large-screen formats are nothing new. Whether on 35, 65 or 70mm, at the point of capture or during projection, film history has witnessed its share of sizes and related aspects of presentation. It takes a small “Cinemiracle” to name and understand them all. Thankfully, there is a great place to marvel at past wonders at Martin Hart’s American WideScreen Museum ( Academy standard, widescreen, VistaVision, Super- and CinemaScope, Todd-AO, D-150 (co-owned by United Artists Theatres), Cinerama and, more recently and more enduringly, IMAX thinking big. For the uninitiated, Hart even explains how a “roadshow” presentation worked ( “It will help theatres present a film in an ‘event’ mode that just smacks of showmanship.”

That showmanship road is exactly where Marcus Theatres found inspiration for the UltraScreen concept, says circuit president Bruce Olson. (For their other trademarked brands, take in the view at our sidebar.) “In the ’60s and ’70s we operated a few ‘roadshow’-type theatres with large screens and large seating capacities,” Olson recalls about classics like the 1,000-seat Southtown in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and its “very wide screen."  “As the business changed, those auditoriums were converted to smaller houses or replaced with multiplexes. We were looking for a unique experience that people couldn’t get at home or other theatres and, remembering those large theatres, decided that a greatly improved large-screen auditorium would be a compelling marketing advantage for us, and the ideal moviegoing environment for our guests.”

At Cinemark USA, Inc. as well, it is all about the experience, insists James Meredith, VP of marketing and communications. “Every Cinemark XD auditorium offers a complete entertainment environment that engages all of your senses and pulls you into the movie. The name XD represents the experience. Cinemark XD auditoriums offer an Extreme Digital Cinema environment and maximize the movie-watching experience.” Both concept and brand were created in-house at Cinemark, as well as all theatre design work.

Marcus too deployed its own talents. “Our management team evaluated many names before selecting UltraScreen,” Olson elaborates. “It has a great sound and does what any good brand does—it perfectly describes the product. The design was created by our operations and technical teams along with our architect,” he says with pride. “I am very happy to say that the logo was created by our own internal graphics team.”

“The first UltraScreen was built at the Westown Cinema in suburban Milwaukee,” he continues. Opening in May 1999 with Star Wars Episode 1–The Phanton Menace, “it was an immediate success as people eagerly waited in long lines to see this greatly anticipated film on the largest traditional movie screen in the Midwest.” The 1983 nine-plex has since been demolished and, together with its neighboring sister theatre, Westpoint Cinema, was replaced by the Marcus Majestic Cinema 16 that offers not one, but two UltraScreens.

To date, Marcus operates a dozen UltraScreen locations and “will continue to add new UltraScreens and our latest UltraScreen XL3D [] to existing locations where appropriate and as part of new construction,” Olson assures. “We evaluate which theatres will benefit from the enhanced experience that an UltraScreen brings, as well as the increased attendance to support the investment… An UltraScreen costs approximately five times as much as a standard size auditorium with a 35-foot screen.”

Despite measuring typically 70 feet or more (21 m), “it is not just a big screen,” Olson explains. “The UltraScreen is an experience that brings many elements together to create a unique entertainment destination. Yes, it is a big, wall-to-wall screen, but it is also plush, comfortable seats, excellent sightlines, and state-of-the-art projection and sound—a large auditorium that still has an intimate feel. Much of what we use in our UltraScreens has been developed through rigorous testing and design analysis to make sure the entire package is the best experience moviegoers can have. Our technical staff did an outstanding job of finding the best technology to match the needs of a modern large-screen auditorium. We also just added Dolby 7.1 [] to our UltraScreen XL3D locations.”

While credit for going bigger first goes to Marcus, Cinemark can collect industry kudos for being among the fastest. Since the original Cinemark XD auditorium launched in West Plano, Texas [], with Monsters vs. Aliens in March of last year, the current installation base has grown to 26 locations across the country. In addition to retrofits, “we have included Cinemark XD auditoriums in new builds and will continue to evaluate this option going forward,” Meredith confirms. If 15 during calendar year 2009 and another 11 culminating with May 2010 openings in Lakewood, Colorado, and Cypress, Texas were not impressive enough, there are plans to open 14 more XDs before the end of 2010. “Outside the U.S., we currently have Cinemark XD auditoriums in Mexico and Brazil,” Meredith adds. The opening of Iron Man 2 made the Century South Point 16 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the “only venue in the country to have two XD theaters on one property,” the casino resort of the same name noted.

“Identifying which Cinemark theatre will receive an XD auditorium is a complex process,” Meredith acknowledges. “All Cinemark brands and markets are carefully reviewed. We consider many factors including the individual theatre’s layout, auditorium sizes and performance. Each XD auditorium features large, wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor screens, plush seating, a custom JBL sound system featuring crisp, clear digital sound, and digital images delivered by a Doremi server and a Barco digital projector []. The Cinemark XD auditoriums are able to exhibit the newest movies every week, including 2D and RealD 3D pictures. Cinemark feels that it’s important to offer our customers a variety of high-quality entertainment options.”

That “flexibility to exhibit the newest blockbuster movie every week” is also a reason why Cinemark created its own large-format brand. While “we do have a few IMAX screens in select theatres around the country,” Meredith explains that “the Cinemark XD auditoriums utilize the standard digital content supplied by the studios without requiring any further enhancement.” Concurs Marcus Theatres’ Olson, “When we launched the first UltraScreen in 1999, there were a limited number of films available in the 15-70 format. And those that were produced were mostly documentaries intended primarily for institutions. While that content had some success, it couldn’t match the appeal of the blockbusters that Hollywood provided. Any film can be shown on an UltraScreen, not just films produced in 70mm.”

With its “own brand which sets us apart,” Marcus Theatres “can also leverage the huge marketing that studios do for their films to bring people to our UltraScreens. UltraScreens are ideally suited for event films that people can’t wait to see. The combination of large seat count of approximately 500, large screen and incredible picture and sound makes the UltraScreen a destination that moviegoers seek out.” And indeed, “moviegoers often drive out of their way to see event pictures at midnight on an UltraScreen,” Olson notes. “In all cases there has been a great deal of interest and excitement about the UltraScreens. The continued expansion of the UltraScreen and the addition of 3D do show that audiences love the experience we deliver. More recently, we have added VIP reserved seat in the upper sections of the UltraScreen, with 54-inch spacing and 50% wider seats with side tables.”

At Cinemark as well, “many of our customers will drive across town to see the newest movie in the Cinemark XD auditorium,” Meredith has observed. “The Cinemark XD concept has been very well-received by the media, movie studios and, most importantly, our customers. Our goal is to provide our customers with the best entertainment experience possible,” he concludes. “Whether offering the newest technology (i.e., digital, RealD 3D, Cinemark XD, etc.), the best value (early-bird pricing specials, discount days, seniors Mondays) or the highest-quality food and beverage options, our objective is to offer our guests the best moviegoing environment available.”

To see how the biggest and best come together at other circuits, check in again next month.

From Academy Ratio to Widescreen
“1953 was a pivotal year in the evolution of the shape of the theatre screen. Attempts had been made to broaden the screen shape in 1929-1930, but they did not take hold for a variety of reasons. In 1931 there finally came a consensus among major studios as to the exact camera and projector aperture dimensions for 35mm sound films. This consensus provided an aspect ratio of 1.37 width to 1.0 height. This was very close to the original 1.33:1 silent screen shape that had prevailed since the early part of the 20th century. The 1.37:1 aspect ratio remained unchallenged until 1953, following the phenomenal impact of Cinerama the previous year.

Cinerama is universally credited with the movement to wide screens, but it is seldom mentioned that it also pushed the studios and exhibitors into the use of LARGE screens, meaning that not only were there efforts to widen the picture but the height was considered in need of enlargement as well. The farther the theatre could get from the tiny television screen, the better.”
—Martin Hart, Curator of the American WideScreen Museum

Taking in the View at Marcus
While Marcus offers the non-plus-ultra of screens, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based circuit has no less than three trademarked ways to describe the view (adapted from company information).

UltraView tiered stadium seating provides the best views of the screen possible and is available in most Marcus Theatres auditoriums.

Bigger than the average screen with big picture and big sound. The SuperScreen boasts a large, bright picture and digital sound featuring the Academy Award-winning Screen Array system.

The UltraScreens, with razor-sharp three-story tall picture, crystal-clear digital sound and comfortable stadium seats, are Marcus movie magic at its best. At more than 500 times bigger than a typical 19” television screen, the UltraScreens take moviegoing to a totally new level of excitement that can never be experienced at home.

Sound Advice
While a bigger picture is certainly better, let’s not forget about the sound. Film Journal International received some expert advice from Stuart Bowling, worldwide technical marketing manager at Dolby Laboratories. In our July issue, we spoke with Bowling about Dolby's new surround format. Among the large-format concepts that utilize Dolby Surround 7.1 Surround sound are Marcus Theatres UltraScreen, featured in this issue, and, coming up next, Cineplex Entertainment UltraAV in Canada and Consolidated Theatres Titan XC in Hawaii. (Andreas Fuchs)

FJI: Why is louder (and bigger) better?
Bowling: Large theatres require bigger systems to fill the size of the room with audio appropriately. It isn’t necessarily louder, as all levels are calibrated to industry standards of 85 Db for screen channels and 82 Db for each surround zone at reference level. What we are seeing with premium theatres is a trend towards installing premium speakers and amplification, which provides audiences with a better audio experience.

FJI: Uncompressed sound seems to be a key feature of the enhancement. Please explain.
Bowling: Uncompressed audio has been around since the advent of digital cinema and the specifications set by DCI. Uncompressed means full-bandwidth audio that is delivered at the rate of 6 MBPS to the cinema processor at 24-bit and up to 96 KHz resolution and is an inherent benefit to the digital cinema platform being incorporated into new theatres.

FJI: What is Dolby’s advice when it comes to going big with sound?

Bowling: Dolby has published guidelines on placement and quantities along with required amplification. These guidelines are applicable to current auditoriums and new big-screen concepts.

Typically, screen-channel speakers are placed at 5/8 image height. This represents roughly where someone’s mouth would be, for example. Surrounds need to be placed at a height that allows them to reach across two-thirds of the room for coverage. Spacing is recommended at maximum of no more than eight feet [2.45 m] apart for surrounds. More surround speakers are always better.

Using full-range surrounds to match the screen channels is the new trend stemming from the requests of the mixing community and starting to pop up in premium theatres like the big-screen concepts from the major theatres. The use of full-range surrounds is inherent in both 5.1 and 7.1 speaker configurations. Theatres looking to deliver a premium experience should consider choosing quality speakers and amplification systems especially for large theatres, to avoid distortion in playback typically associated with underpowered systems and poor choice of speaker to match the size of the theatre.