A fresh vision: New Sony Digital Cinema VP has eye on the future
Three months into his expanded role as Vice President of Sony Digital Cinema 4K Solutions for Europe and the Americas, David McIntosh takes an open look at Sony’s ambitious plans for its newly structured cinema business.
Let me confess a little naiveté when I joined the cinema industry in 2008. Coming from my previous role as CFO for Sony’s professional business in Europe, I wasn’t 100% sure about our proposition to the market. It took a visit to our vast technology center in Atsugi—an hour’s train ride southwest of Tokyo—to convince me about Sony’s ambitions for 4K cinema projection.
I remember asking, “Why 4K resolution?” After a bit of customary embarrassed laughter, the reply was “Because this is how we see 35mm film.”
It dawned on me at that moment. From an engineer’s point of view, they were not just creating a product to fill market demand, real or manufactured. They were genuinely attempting to ensure that all the beauty and detail of 35mm film was captured and faithfully presented to audiences. And having answered my question, the senior engineer’s immediate follow-up was “Please help us sell it.”
Plenty’s changed since then, even if a few manufacturers stubbornly refused to see the 4K waves lapping at their feet for a long time.
Today, a world beyond HD resolution is fully part of consumer consciousness, from TV screens and tablets to cameras, computers and even mobile phones. And in theatres, 4K is a now a given for the simple reason that it is the best possible image onscreen.
We are once again proud to be a sponsor of CineEurope. It’s important for Sony to showcase the image quality that our projectors deliver. And that’s precisely why rather than being on the exhibition floor in the CCIB, we will again showcase our image quality and easy-on-the-eye dual-lens 3D. At our screening suite in rooms 134 on Level 1, you can experience the sheer picture quality of Sony 4K that’s long been the envy of our peers. There’s lots of space to relax and critically evaluate the quality of our R515 projector under proper conditions, away from the noise and bustle of the show.
Coming from a financial-planning background, I’m sensitive to the inner rhythms of any business. Over the last five years we’ve had to scale our business to accommodate quite spectacular growth, and from a standing start in 2006 we’ve shipped almost 18,000 projectors.
Our strategy for getting into the cinema business a decade ago was pretty simple: Give audiences the best possible picture quality that’s technically achievable onscreen. Today that mission remains exactly the same as it was back then. And it answers the question that I’m often asked by customers on both sides of the Atlantic: Where is Sony with laser?
It’s no surprise that Sony has been at the forefront of developments in laser right from the get-go. As long ago as 2005, we demonstrated laser projection at the Aichi Expo in Japan. In 2012, we proved the viability of High Frame Rate 3D projection with a laser, using advanced de-speckling technology for high-quality images on a silver screen. And then last year we launched our first business projector that uses a laser light source for 20,000 hours of maintenance-free operation and consistently high brightness—unheard of with a conventional projector lamp.
Today, what our engineering teams are achieving in the cinema exhibition space is truly remarkable. And what I’ve already witnessed in our Japanese labs gave me the same shiver of excitement experienced when I saw 4K for the first time.
During this year we will be showing a handful of key customers privately just what we’re up to in Atsugi. And rest assured, I’ll be the first to tell the whole world about laser when the time is right. But in the meantime, I’d pose two big questions to anyone who’s thinking about laser technology right now.
Firstly, are you absolutely sure that it’s going to deliver significantly better onscreen quality than what’s achievable today with today’s technology? It’s hard to get excited about a manufacturer’s breathless claims of a 3,000:1 contrast ratio for their first-generation product. Every Sony 4K projector that’s ever shipped comfortably exceeds DCI specifications, while our R515 puts out pictures with an onscreen contrast ratio averaging 8,000:1. So right now my challenge is “Show me—and your audiences—something better.”
Our customers tell us that a huge benefit of the Sony projection experience is the fact that all the design and manufacture is wholly under our control—including the projector, server and optical components. This allows us to deliver unrivalled product reliability, and our customers tell us they like the single integrated system approach we’ve championed and will continue to do so. If there’s an issue, it’s always Sony who’s going to sort it out, with no passing the buck.
Technical skepticism aside, I’d seriously question the business case for laser as it stands right now. During the digital gold rush of 2009-2012, Sony could scarcely build projectors fast enough to satisfy demand. But now as an industry we’re at a certain level of market maturity. Tens of thousands of cinema operators are busily earning returns on their investment in digital through happy audiences and digital delivering much more content efficiently onscreen, which drives healthy ticket receipts.
All of which begs the most important question of all. At this point in most cinemas’ investment cycles, where is the incentive for another significant round of capital outlay? Particularly if the pictures you’re promising audiences with laser will struggle to beat what current-generation 4K is already delivering?
Until there’s a clear commercial proposition to offer our theatrical customers, it doesn’t make sense offering solutions to a non-existent problem. But don’t be in any doubt about the future—I look forward to Sony delivering the laser solution to both those questions.
Despite the changes that I’ve had to oversee in recent months, an inevitable maturing of our own market has meant a tough but very necessary reorganization of our U.S. and European business. Complementing our technical and engineering resource in Atsugi, I’m heading an extensive team of cinema people in Europe and the U.S., spanning everything from sales, customer support, marketing and technical development to 4K content partnerships. And together we’re more focused than ever on giving customers—and their audiences—the best 4K experience anywhere.
I’m immensely proud of the relationships Sony has built with exhibitors like AMC, Regal, Vue and National Amusements. Needless to say, our customers will continue to be my number-one priority, from the big chains to the thousands of smaller independents who love Sony 4K.
I’ll also be spending a lot of time with studios in Hollywood and Europe. And I’ll be reinforcing our ties with the technical bodies and industry associations who provide the rock-solid foundations this business is built on.
At Sony we recognize that long-term success means making long-term investment decisions. And what exhibitors need right now is a partner that’s going to genuinely deliver on its commitment to support industry needs. And that’s why I am immensely proud to be leading a business in the U.S. and Europe that’s absolutely focused on its current customers—and tomorrow’s.