Digital on display: R.L. Fridley Theatres and NEC partner for state-of-the-art presentation


In our dedicated d-cinema section this month, Film Journal International is pleased to provide several examples of how smaller-sized and independently minded members of the theatrical exhibition business have fully committed to digital cinema as well. With 20 locations in Iowa and two in Nebraska, offering a total of 91 screens, Des Moines-based R. L. Fridley Theatres certainly fits the bill. Founded in 1974 by the namesake Robert Fridley, who still guides the company as president with his son and vice president, Brian, the company focuses on commitment to the communities their theatres serve.

Ranging from some 5,000 people in Humboldt, Iowa, to some 46,000 in Ankeny, Iowa, at the other end of the spectrum, “Fridley Theatres strives to provide exceptional service and presentation, great entertainment choices, and competitive prices to the local communities we serve.” And the company is living up to their mission statement. Robert and Brian Fridley and their team deserve our attention alone for converting to d-cinema no less than three single-screens, two twins, seven tri-plexes (among them Hastings and McCook in Nebraska; all other towns mentioned here are located in Iowa), one quad and three five-plexes in addition to their locations with seven (two locations), nine (three) and ten screens (one).

All of these Fridley Theatres were upgraded with NEC projectors of various capacities, including six with 4K DLP Cinema and 68 with RealD 3D add-ons (70%), as well as with servers from GDC throughout. Taking advantage of the full NEC Displays portfolio, Fridley also added four different models of NEC’s professional-grade flat-panel displays for box-office and auditorium signage as well as for its concession menu boards. All are powered by Global Allure software. In key spots across several locations, Fridley also installed video walls with four panels bundled together in NEC’s trademarked “TileMatrix” display to show coming attractions, to announce specials and feature other promotional messages.

“We loved the idea of showing our customers these offerings in a digital, state-of-the-art way,” explains Russell Vannorsdel, director of operations at Fridley. “It aligned perfectly with the digital upgrade we were already investing in.” Additionally, “we were looking to grab people’s attention and also to better and more effectively communicate with our customers about available offers.” These displays also made going digital more tangible to the public. “We spent a lot of money and a lot of work on our auditoriums, but guests don’t really see a digital projector, they don’t see a digital sound system,” he opines. “But we definitely created a ‘wow’ factor with the digital menu boards.”

Vannorsdel adds that feedback and reactions from moviegoers confirm this. “As an operations guy, I’m always looking at ways to try and increase revenue and to raise per-capitas at our theatres. Our digital menu boards allow us to highlight the products that we believe will do just that. Whenever you walk by the concession stand, the goal is to grab your attention and to get you to enjoy popcorn or another treat. I believe that’s what we have been able to do with those menu boards.” Calling this the “main advantage,” he also finds, “it just creates a cleaner, better and exciting look overall.”

Fridley Theatres began its retrofit with “the basic software solution from NEC that allows you to create content and place it on the menu boards.” The circuit added digital signage in more of its locations, and “after going to the trade shows, we realized how much more one can do,” Vannorsdel continues. “That’s when we decided to go with Allure. For our point-of-sale we have been with Ready Theatre Systems for quite some time,” he notes, anticipating our next question. “They have always been able to effectively meet our needs. Here, too, they were able to interface with Allure to post our box-office showtimes automatically and to integrate further with the software that Allure offers.”

For a variety of reasons, the rollout of the digital projection system took time and several considerations. “We began looking at converting long before distribution sent out these letters with hard-set deadlines for switching over, due to the lack of availability of 35mm prints.” Vannorsdel delineates the timeline further. “Our very first entry into digital cinema was with an NEC unit in one of our Des Moines suburb locations.” Back in September 2007, “we began testing that unit to see how it all works and how we would move into the conversion.

Afterwards, we actually converted back to 35mm and started putting together a plan. Although there were VPF programs out there at the time, the waters were still kind of murky, as deals were being refined and worked out. Also, as a mid-level exhibitor, it was difficult for us to fully commit to some of those earlier deals. Until we figured out what would be the best deal for Fridley Theatres, we didn’t feel it was right to sign a contract.”

Nonetheless, Fridley started the deployment “in some of our locations with higher foot traffic and larger population bases.” Vannorsdel names the Metro Des Moines area, “as well as converting our larger screens first.” Without the added security from VPF payments, how did Fridley manage to move forward? “We were fortunate enough to generate some of the financing from cash flow,” Vannorsdel responds. “We could also count on our local banks that we have worked with regularly. They have helped us as we built new theatres and remodeled others. They were willing to work with us again, especially since there were VPF deals around the corner—once we’d finished negotiating and working on them.” Throughout this initial phase, deploying 3D systems was a strong contributing factor, he confirms. “I think we’re seeing a little bit of backlash on 3D now, but, obviously, a couple of years ago some of the numbers were fairly undeniable. They were huge, in fact. And if you didn’t have 3D, you were losing business.”

In addition to going without VPFs initially, the technology team had selected a different projector manufacturer for that rollout beginning in February 2009. “We were working with Ballantyne Strong at the time and they had a relationship with another company.” After installing 12 to 15 screens, “we ran into a couple of issues [mainly, difficulty getting parts, he reveals.] We had a screen that was dark, unfortunately, probably eight to ten days. Obviously, if you are on the exhibition side of things, that’s unacceptable. You don’t want to be down at all—even losing one show, you’re disappointed.” By that point, Ballantyne Strong had established a new relationship with NEC, he continues, “and we received assurance that there would be no problems with parts. When we decided to do the full digital conversion, NEC was as aggressive in pricing as anyone else. Fortunately, they have backed that up with their service thus far too. It’s been a very good relationship.”

Having worked well with GDC on the server side throughout the various stages of deployment, “it seemed like the waters were getting a bit less murky,” Vannorsdel says in retrospect. “GDC was working on a VPF deal which became a large and important part of the process. We were probably into installing 30 to 35 screens already before we settled into a VPF agreement with them [during the third quarter of last year]. We wanted to be able to control the product that we were going to book into our theatres and how,” he emphasizes. “Without being confined, if you will, in our abilities by the studios and VPF restrictions.”

Did any theatres end up being closed because of the expense involved in the conversion? Even before going into the rollout, “we had been evaluating all of our locations as we switched our focus more on our multiplexes.” Operating 36 locations not so long ago, Vannorsdel confirms that “some of our smaller single-screens and others that had become marginally profitable or less so” needed to be closed. “The digital conversion probably expedited that decision,” he adds. “We began looking at either selling them and, in quite a few cases, we donated some of our singles or even a twin to the local communities. That way, they were able to run those theatres on a local support level.”

As part of the digital conversion of the picture, “we also upgraded many of our sound systems to 7.1 surround sound,” Vannorsdel continues, with equipment coming both from USL and Dolby. “Obviously there was not going to be any more analog. So, with some of those smaller locations it wasn’t just the cost of digital projection and servers, but also everything else that might have been just about par to sub-par technically. We made a concentrated effort to upgrade any sound systems in addition to the digital projection integration.” At the Palms 10 in Muscatine, Fridley also added Dolby Atmos as an integral part of the circuit’s first large-screen format. “I should say our first ‘official’ large screen, because we do have very large screens already.”

As the industry is moving forward with the concept of premium-sized screens, “we developed our own brand called XLD,” Vannorsdel elaborates. “We didn’t want to make it special with ‘just’ a big screen, but also wanted to be able to fill up that screen with a great picture. So we installed the NEC 4K projector. If we are going to have a great picture and a great presentation,” he reasons, “we also wanted to have great and immersive sound.” Fridley Theatres’ director of projection, Brad Ramer, had the opportunity to hear a demonstration of Dolby Atmos at CinemaCon “and he was very impressed,” Vannorsdel recalls. “We decided it would be worthwhile to use Dolby Atmos to set our XLD auditorium apart and make it even more special. Muscatine may only have 25,000 people, but it is not far away from the Quad Cities and Burlington and has a very large drawing area. One of our goals is to get people to come to Muscatine so that they can see how nice the theatre is. And it is very impressive,” he confirms for good measure. Vannorsdel enjoyed seeing Oz the Great and Powerful as the first movie in Dolby Atmos. “It was very, very unique to me.” He goes on to describe the arrival of the twister “which really brought out the overhead speakers,” as well as the picture opening up fully to color. “And then you saw how brilliant the 4K image was... The experience in XLD and Dolby Atmos is impressive.”

Equally impressive, if not more so, is the fact that Fridley technicians, after being trained and certified, installed all the NEC and GDC equipment. “The last 12 months where we installed 50-plus screens was fairly intense,” he admits. “We had two guys mainly that were working very, very hard and with some support from Midwest Cinema Service. So we pushed quite hard and are still in the process of cleaning up,” Vannorsdel confirms. “Where all that equipment went, that’s a great question,” he laughs. “If you have any uses for platter systems, let us know. We keep trying to figure things to do with platter decks. [Picnic tables are one suggestion, he notes.] We just had some equipment picked up for metal recycling. In a couple of instances, items were resold as well, but obviously there is not much of a market for that.”

Robert Fridley, who turned 96 in March and who “is still in the office seven days a week,” might add some of the equipment to his personal collection, Vannorsdel adds. “He has quite an assortment of different 35mm projectors—a great collection of everything, in fact, that he has kept as mementos from the past.” While there are a few locations “where we had the room to display some of the equipment, most of it is at the shop or at his home.”

Having seen—but hopefully not stored in his home—every technology change in motion picture exhibition, what does Robert Fridley think about all this digital business? “I can’t necessarily speak for him, but in conversations that I’ve had with him,” Vannorsdel says, “there is a part of him that misses film a little bit. Just as many of us in the industry do. But when you see digital done right, [with] the consistence and brightness of the picture and its clarity, it is hard not to recognize that it is a far better presentation.”