Saluting Jack Kline: Christie exec named a champion of enhanced cinematic presentation


“When Tom Christie hired me almost three-and-a-half decades ago, he had a very simple vision and philosophy about the company. He said: I want to build quality products, I want to provide good service to our customers, and I want to use integrity in our business dealings.”

Although Jack Kline and Tom Christie were talking about 35mm some 35 years ago, “that vision, insight and philosophy are still in Christie today. We are still building on the same foundation in how we approach our business.”

On the very day that Film Journal International spoke to Jack Kline about being named the recipient of the Ken Mason Award from The Inter-Society for the Enhancement of Cinema Presentation at CinemaCon 2014, the president and chief operating officer of Christie Digital Systems USA had additional reasons to take pride in his accomplishments since having joined forces with the company founder in 1979. Kenji Hamashima, the chairman, president and CEO of the Christie group of companies, had just announced that Kline would succeed him and assume the role of chairman, president and CEO of all of Christie’s operating companies, worldwide.

Worldwide being the operative term here? “We were a very North American-centric organization, and now we are a global solutions company,” Kline concurs. “We have 18 offices around the world and multiple manufacturing facilities. Our organization encompasses areas of business units that are leaders in rental staging, software, and the medical industry. They are all tied around visual solutions and sharing visual experiences, which is very important to us now.”

And, he adds, this has been very much so from the onset. “What really sets us apart is that Christie has been in the cinema business from the beginning. Since 1929, when we were developing power supplies for carbon arc, to be exact. Others have come into the cinema business from other areas. But we are quite different in that Christie is a leader in visual technology that has also been a trusted partner of exhibitors and studios, and of many other cinema partners.”

Unfortunately, many of those trusted brands and partners did not manage to make the switch to digital. When did Kline first see the writing on the screen? “It was really in the middle of the 1990s. Christie, like so many others in the cinema business, enjoyed an incredible windfall from the concept of multiplexing. Cinemas were being built all over the world and they kept getting larger and larger. Going up to 30-plexes was just the wonder years for a 35mm projector manufacturer like Christie—and for everybody on that side of the film business. Kodak, Technicolor, Deluxe and everybody you can imagine, all were just having wonderful times. With that, the stakeholders in analog cinema were very complacent about how great things were.”

Kline then adds a note of caution. “My philosophy has always been: You really need to worry more when things are going very well. When things are going poorly, you have the attention of everybody in your organization… Everybody is trying to improve a difficult situation. But when things are really good, like they were in the 1990s, I get very, very uncomfortable.”

Around the same time, Kline realized that “digital was being developed. Back then, we called it video,” he chuckles. “I was concerned about what was going to happen, that it would be disruptive. I saw digital technology was getting better and better. Once technology is moving forward, you do not want to get in its way, you want to ride that wave. You cannot stop it. So I thought, maybe it is better that I disrupt my business rather than let somebody else disrupt it.”

This must not have been easy for him at a time when most people in the industry were skeptical of digital cinema. “Their arguments were well-founded,” Kline admits. “People associated digital technology with their computers, which they changed out on an annual basis and that were constantly being upgraded. No, I did not have a lot of support within the cinema industry because this was a disruptive kind of thought. But somehow I knew then if it went digital, we would be marginalized and probably be going out of the business.”

Instead of being discouraged, Christie found courage, he says. “I started to seek out companies that had a similar cultural and business philosophy, that were customer-centric and had digital technology. This led us to the acquisition of Electrohome [Projection Systems in 1999], a digital projector manufacturer in Canada, and we were the first licensee of TI’s [Texas Instruments’] DLP technology for cinema. We invested over $50 million in the development process to make it happen. We were ‘all in,’ as they say in Las Vegas.”

Kline concurs that the lead-up to this acquisition was “the most exciting time” at Christie, even though “cinemas were now starting to get in trouble because of the multiplexing.” In early 2000, the technology was moving very quickly, he recalls. “Through this acquisition of this new technology, I felt like we reinvented the company with this move. I was very excited because I knew that it was going to happen. Digital technology was going to replace film technology, and we were well-positioned to continue Christie as a company. I didn’t have to worry about being marginalized because I had secured the future for Christie.” How this future would unfold, “I miscalculated,” he admits. “I really thought that it was going to take just a few years. Over the next almost five years I watched major companies like Qualcomm, Technicolor, Boeing, even Texas Instruments, fail to enable that technology.” (To learn more about how the tide turned, see our sidebar “How Jack Changed Digital.”)

After finally enabling a very successful deployment, what are Kline’s goals for Christie now? And for the exhibition business? “We have reached and passed the peak of the revenue that would be generated from digital cinema,” he agrees. “What once was 50% of our total business is being reduced on an annual basis, probably by half. So this is where we are looking beyond just projector sales, at the rest of our business.”

Kline mentions the software, service and support side. “We have developed a strong customer base and now we can help them move forward as the technology moves forward, both in projection and audio… Christie is going to provide more products, services and solutions to our existing customer base in cinema.” Asked for an example, Kline shares his belief that “lamp illumination for projection will go away. That’s why we are very heavily invested in laser and hybrid illumination technology. And we are involved in other methods of visual display beyond just front projection. We are energized. Digital cinema was the catalyst, but it certainly was not the end of projection technology.” At the same time, “we have to fill the gap that is going to be left with cinema and are looking to grow our other units.”

Overseeing all five of the major product portfolios for Christie now—Cinema/Digital Cinema, Fixed Installation, Rental/Staging, Control Rooms, and Advanced Visualization & Simulation—will he be playing any favorites? “I started in film and I think I will always have a strong personal attachment to the movie industry and the theatre business. Over the years, on a global basis, I have developed wonderful friendships with partners, customers and competitors.”

On top of that, Kline says, the staging business is very much close to what he does. “When you see how our technology can affect millions of people at events like the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, the Vancouver Olympics or Shanghai Expo, it is just incredible. Using the digital projection and software mapping technologies that Christie has developed, we can share that experience…around the world. We call that our ‘spectaculars,’ and are becoming noted for our unique ability to put on events that dazzle people with audio and visual technology... That’s all pretty exciting stuff. If there was something that was going to challenge my love for cinema, it would be the spectaculars.”

It was in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, where Kline spectacularly fell in love for the first time. “It really goes back to my childhood. Like so many people, we had a little, family-operated movie theatre in town. The Storm King Theatre was the focal point for our little village. Saturday matinees, seeing all the activity that was around the movie theatre: I always enjoyed going to the movies and have been a big fan for forever.” For that reason, Kline has been personally involved in trying “to save as many of those small movie theatres and drive-ins that we possibly can. Because they are so much in jeopardy of going out of business, we have developed leasing and financing plans, and made arrangements to save many hundreds of theatres.” Kline is referring to Christie’s support of initiatives like “Save America’s Cinemas” (FJI March 2013) and Honda’s “Project Drive-In” (FJI December 2013).

“It would be a shame to see those go away,” he declares. “I wouldn’t want my great-grandchildren to ask me one day: What is a drive-in? They are part of the American culture, and so we are working to try to save as many as we can.”

Looking back himself, would Jack Kline do digital cinema all over again? “Yeah, I would,” he says without hesitation. “It was a big unknown back then. Certainly, the technology wasn’t quite ready. The business plan wasn’t perfect. There were pieces to the puzzle we really hadn’t figured out. We were close. But I’ve always felt that a good plan perfectly executed is better than a perfect plan poorly executed. We didn’t have a perfect plan, but we were pretty close. We made up for it with just the passion and dedication that Christie put into developing and strengthening the technology, providing the support to the customers and to the exhibitors. We just put it all into it.”

And the moviegoing experience is the richer for it. Thank you, Jack, and congratulations for being a champion of the cinema.

How Jack Changed Digital
“In early 2005, when everyone had pretty much given up, it was a very soul-searching time for me,” says Jack Kline, recalling a key point in time not just for Christie, but also for theatrical exhibition. “It wasn’t about really making money, because back then we were just trying to validate the technology and validate the business model, and it worked. It was really the dedication and total commitment from everybody. From engineering, manufacturing, service, all of our team, to make this work. We knew that if we failed, it would be a failure to validate digital cinema and it could actually delay potential deployments for ten years or more. It was a big gamble.

“We had invested so much in this digital technology and it was at that point just beyond our grasp. That was probably the most challenging time in my career… I was really trying to figure out what I was going to do because Ushio, our parent company, had been extremely patient with me for all that period of time and believed in what I was trying to do. I just was at a loss.”

It was during a “Dinner of Champions” in Century City, Los Angeles, that Kline realized “there wasn’t anybody else that could carry the torch forward.” At that same event, Jerry Pierce, who was executive VP of technology for Universal Studios at the time and who coincidentally received the Inter-Society Award last year, came over and said to Kline: “Why aren’t you doing it? Why are you leaving it to people who can’t make it happen and some that aren’t even from the industry? We know you. Exhibitors know you. You have the technology. Why don’t you do it?”

“It was at that moment,” Kline continues, “and from a lot of soul searching, I just thought maybe we can. We didn’t have the relationships at the studio level. We had it at the exhibition level instead. Studios were really not part of what we did. I called upon Craig Sholder, who was our VP of entertainment solutions, and said, ‘Craig, we can do this.’ Then Jerry set up the first meeting with Universal. We walked out of that meeting and we were off and running. We never looked back. I think you have to hang in there. You put it all out there and you really go for it, and it was a winner."