Technology in review: Asia embraces digital, 3D and immersive sound
The Asian market, when viewed from a global perspective, continues to shine brightly with digital installations continuing at a rapid pace, while the more mature markets of North America and Europe are nearing completion. In the Asia and Pacific regions (“APAC”), the construction of new cinema complexes abounds, with most new cinemas being equipped from the onset for the latest in digital projection with no legacy 35mm equipment. In addition to the increase caused by new construction, digital conversions of existing cinemas are continuing beyond the major metropolitan markets and into the smaller towns and municipalities across Asia.
At the beginning of 2013, there were approximately 23,000 digital screens installed throughout the APAC region, doubling the previous year’s totals. This year, maturing markets in Japan, Korea and parts of China are nearing completion, while India, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia continue to expand. While each individual country has its own issues affecting conversions, the growth trend in new construction across the APAC region remains good news for the industry.
The progress of digital cinema in Asia is also being driven by the increasing popularity of large-screen auditoriums which feature the absolute best in comfort and incorporate the most advanced technologies in 3D and 4K projection. Many of these are also being equipped with the latest premium sound, choosing between Dolby Atmos™ or Barco’s Auro 11.1 soundtrack format, the two leading immersive sound formats.
DLP Cinema™ technology-licensed manufacturers Christie, Barco and NEC are all enjoying brisk sales throughout the APAC region. Christie’s Shenzhen manufacturing plant continues to produce hundreds of digital projectors, feeding the film-to-digital conversion frenzy in theatres across Asia. As an example, Wanda Cinema, the world’s largest exhibitor, added more than 350 Christie projectors in 2013, as did Malaysia’s TGV Cinemas, which installed 364 units. Barco has around 14,500 cinema-grade projectors installed in the APAC region, with over 11,600 in China alone. NEC Display Solutions reports strong sales in the APAC region, especially in China and the Philippines. In China, working though their representatives Strong Westrex and Beijing Donview, NEC added 1,400 cinema projectors in 2013, bringing its total to over 3,600 for the country. In Korea, where the conversion is almost completed, NEC and its integrator Hyosung ITX added more than 50 cinema systems this year.
The two leading digital-cinema server manufacturers, Hong Kong’s GDC Technology and U.S.-based Doremi, both reported strong continuing sales throughout Asia. GDC Technology has over 12,000 of its servers from a worldwide total of over 30,000 units installed in the Asian region, with approximately 8,500 in China, 1,100 in Korea, and 1,100 in Japan. Doremi also has an impressive installation base, reporting that of its 55,000-unit worldwide total, over 8,000 are in the Asia-Pacific region, with their strongest markets being Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
In Thailand, SF Corporation, a leading cinema chain with over 250 screens across the country, announced plans to install a substantial number of Sony’s latest 4K digital-cinema projection systems. This makes SF the first Thai exhibitor and one of the first exhibitors in the region to install 4K projection systems from Sony. SF’s installations of 4K projection have taken place over the last two years. SF was the first in Thailand to install a digital projection system in 2003, and continued to lead using 4K and 3D projection capabilities. The addition of the new Sony 4K projectors will bring the cumulative number of 4K systems already installed in SF’s theatres to over 220 units.
This spring, Technicolor announced that its facility in Bangkok had formed an alliance with GDC Technology to streamline the DCP distribution process across Asia. This alliance means Technicolor and GDC can offer their clients a single point of contact for replication, distribution and KDM support, initially focusing on Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Technicolor delivers its customers’ content to screens worldwide by leveraging a hybrid distribution platform comprised of physical and electronic distribution mediums, including key management to ensure the security and reliable delivery of content to movie theatres, while GDC maintains well-established relationships with all major distributors and exhibitors in Asia including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In Southeast Asia, NEC, working with Thailand's Goldenduck group, added over 300 projectors to cinemas in Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia for customers such as Ayala Cinema, Gaisano Cinema, Megaworld Cinema, Araneta Cinema and Greenhills Cinema.
In India, Chennai’s Real Image Media Technologies entered into a distribution partnership with Barco with 700 units that are scheduled for installation during 2013. Real Image is a pioneer in digital-cinema technology globally, with its Qube line of products. Over the next three years, up to 3,000 DCI-compliant Barco projectors installed with Qube media blocks are planned for India’s theatres.
Also in India, NEC in conjunction with RIMT installed approximately 150 of its small-chip NC900 projectors.
Even the developing country of Myanmar, which has approximately 65 cinemas, is upgrading to digital. So far, digital projection and sound have been installed in 17 cinemas. Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprises (MMPE), the governmental organization that oversees the industry, is planning to digitize every cinema, including both state-owned and private halls. Most of the unconverted cinemas in Myanmar have submitted proposals for the upgrade, with MMPE helping exhibitors secure the financing. MMPE also plans to offer various incentives to local production companies to encourage digital productions.
In Australia, Cinedigm, a U.S.-based digital services provider, and the Independent Cinemas Association of Australia (ICAA) announced a comprehensive VPF program to assist independent cinemas in the region. ICAA has members across Australia representing nearly 540 screens across 143 cinema locations. When combined with the neighboring New Zealand Motion Picture Association, it represents more than 650 member screens. ICAA Services Pty Ltd. is a subsidiary to jointly manage the VPF program along with a full Network Operations Center (NOC) to monitor system performance. The NOC was established on a nonprofit basis by ICAA Services to integrate with software systems to provide the monitoring and reporting requirements of the VPF program. The ICAA NOC, which is also available to other non-member exhibitors in the Australia/New Zealand region, has over 220 screens connected.
This past July, Christie co-announced with Australian exhibitor Reading International a long-term VPF deployment agreement that will eventually upgrade all of Reading’s screens in the region. By the end of 2013, Reading will have around 200 screens at 28 locations converted to digital through this program.
Finally, NEC Australia added more than 100 projectors with independent exhibitors in Australia and New Zealand.
3D continues to be a draw for Chinese and other Asian exhibitors, and its incorporation into projection systems is now considered to be essential in competitive markets. In China, the largest 3D provider, RealD, has approximately 1,300 installations. China exhibitor Zhejiang Xingguang, which currently owns 32 cinemas comprising 203 screens, recently added 50 additional 3D systems. In August, UME International Cineplex, which expects to be operating 22 cinemas with 253 screens by year’s end, agreed to add an additional 50 3D systems to their Northern China locations, bringing their total to 100 3D systems. Also, in October, MasterImage 3D and China Film Equipment Co., Ltd. announced a distribution agreement bringing 3D cinema systems to over 30 provinces throughout China.
Large-screen branded digital auditoriums, those using top-tier 2K and 4K dual-projectors with premium sound, are spreading across Asia at a dramatic rate. According to recent reports, there were fewer than ten such auditoriums in China in 2007 and well over 100 currently. In the competitive markets, exhibitors with the resources and space are turning to the globally recognized IMAX format while others are choosing to differentiate themselves by creating their own brands for their large-screen experience. With these new premium branded auditoriums, the audience enjoys an immersive cinematic experience with unmatched brightness, sharpness and superior 3D images.
Christie has made it easier for exhibitors to enter into the large-screen market by offering its Duo™ integration kit, which uses two of its high-brightness 4K projectors along with the necessary optics to illuminate screens as wide as 32 meters. Exhibitors such as Shimao, Shanghai Film Group and Wanda have installed the system into their self-branded large-screen theatres such as Wanda X-land. Dongfang Giant Screen also opted for the Christie Duo solution. In Taiwan, Christie’s integrator, Dacoms Technology, installed its system with Lux Theaters, creating a 4K configuration that projects 68,000 lumens on the screen. In Australia, Christie, working with its local partner Edge Digital Technology, installed a dual-projector Duo system at Hoyts’ Blacktown Cinema 5 to light up Australia’s largest traditional screen.
IMAX continues to add to its Asian installation numbers. IMAX and Wanda, Asia's largest exhibitor, announced the addition of a minimum of 40 and up to 120 new large-screen theatres to be located throughout China. In 2012, Wanda Group acquired U.S.-based AMC Theatres, creating the world's largest cinema owner as well as the largest operator of IMAX theatres. IMAX also announced major commitments from CJ CGV Holdings for the addition of 30 theatres to be installed in new construction projects across China as well as five previously optional theatres in Korea. This agreement brings CGV's commitment to 95 theatres, with 20 in South Korea and 75 in China. IMAX and Indonesia's largest exhibitor, Cinema 21, agreed to install eight additional screens, bringing their total to 10 screens. The company also intends to introduce its next-generation laser digital projection system to Asian exhibitors by the end of 2015.
One of the recent trends sweeping across Asian cinemas is the incorporation of new immersive sound systems to complement the large-screen auditoriums. Immersive sound refers to audio systems that utilize additional channels, typically more than the standard 5.1 or 7.1 configurations, to deliver a more realistic and therefore a more emotional experience. As with any new soundtrack format, the movie titles themselves need to be mixed specifically for that format, and post-production facilities need to be trained and equipped before they can create the sound mixes. Therefore, representatives from both Dolby and Barco have been busy not only equipping the theatres but also building the upstream pipeline to deliver a steady flow of titles with immersive sound to the cinemas.
According to Dolby, from its approximately 300 Atmos systems installed worldwide, 63 cinemas in the APAC region have been equipped, with at least 32 in China with Wanda, Lumière and others, eight in India with SPI Cinemas, and seven in Korea with Megabox. Dolby currently has 13 Asian post facilities equipped to mix in Atmos and so far 28 titles with Atmos mixes have originated in Asia. This October, FutureWorks Media Studio, a facility in Mumbai featuring a Meyer Sound cinema loudspeaker system, became India’s post first facility to be awarded with Dolby’s premier studio certification.
Also in India, Dolby has struck an arrangement with Real Image Media Technology to purchase a minimum of 50 Atmos systems, along with an additional 200 Atmos-ready CP850 processors. Also, SPI Cinemas is installing 37 Atmos screens around Chennai and Coimbatore. Other Indian exhibitors installing Atmos are PVR Cinemas, Inox Movies, Prasads and Mayajaal. When this initial wave is completed, Dolby expects to have over 100 Atmos systems in India alone.
In the Philippines, Atmos has been installed in three screens at the Greenhills Promenade in San Juan City. The installation used JBL loudspeakers and Crown amplifiers and was overseen by the Goldenduck Group, Dolby’s Southeast Asian equipment and services supplier. And Reading Entertainment became the first in Australia with Atmos installed at its Waurn Ponds, Geelong Titan XC Extreme Cinema.
Barco Auro 11.1 installations also continue to grow at a substantial pace. Of the 100 worldwide installations, Barco reports approximately 50 installed in the APAC region. At the beginning of 2013, Sathyam Cinemas' Six Degrees, part of SPI Cinemas, became the first in India with an Auro 11.1 system. In July, Bangalore’s renowned Manasa Theatre installed an Auro 11.1 system in its UltraScreen branded auditorium. Working with integrator GM Audio, the Dhanya Theatre in the town of Kollam became the first to install Auro 11.1 in India’s Kerala region.
In June, India’s famous AM Studios equipped with Barco Auro 11.1 to enhance its 3D sound recording capabilities. Barco has also equipped mixing facilities with Auro 11.1 equipment in Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, with more coming throughout the APAC region by year’s end. So far, over 30 feature films have been mixed and released worldwide in Auro 11.1 and 10 Asian-produced titles are in the pipeline to be released over the next 12 months.