Is 2016 the Year of Laser Projection?

It didn’t take long for Santikos Entertainment to be convinced by laser projection. The regional circuit, which operates 10 cinemas in the Houston and San Antonio areas, began its transition away from xenon lamp digital projectors after setting up its first laser system in December 2014. A mere 18 months following that first install, Santikos made a bold move by announcing that all of its screens would be converted to laser beginning in May, with the inauguration of the country’s first all-laser complex, the 16-screen Casablanca Theatre.

The Santikos announcement is a watershed moment for laser projection in the United States, the first circuit-wide commitment from a chain to feature the technology across all of its screens. Santikos doesn’t consider the decision a leap of faith but sees it as one way to best leverage the technology in its marketing efforts in a highly competitive exhibition region. “We didn’t really promote laser because it would have put us in between a rock and a hard place—you can’t tell guests that laser is the latest and greatest technology, but you can only enjoy it in one screen,” says Santikos president Art Seago. He also notes that although guests weren’t made aware of the laser technology, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive for the auditorium where it was installed. It served as the proof-of-concept trial they needed to commit the rest of their screens to laser. “It’s really hard to brag about having the best technology when only a small number of your screens are equipped with it.”

Santikos decided to go with Barco, a long-time technology partner, for the laser projection across its circuit. “Having a quality exhibitor choose our gear says a tremendous amount for Barco,” says Scott Friedberg, director of sales at Barco. “They’re also willing to be pioneers; they weren’t willing for anybody else to figure stuff out—they wanted to be first.”

The most effective sales pitch for laser projection remains its low cost of maintenance despite being a value-added commodity for audiences. “It’s a level of quality that no one has seen before,” Seago emphasizes. “All our audiences can enjoy the same light output, the same crisp color from day one to the end of life of the projector at any of our locations. There are no more weird four-week cycles of bulb lights where the movie looks great on the first day and starts to diminish on the second day so you need to replace the bulb and start the cycle over again in four weeks. Our guests will no longer experience that once we convert our entire circuit into laser.”

It’s that same angle that Cinemeccanica is taking in marketing Cinecloud Lux, a laser light source that is adaptable to any DLP digital projector, which was introduced to the market in December 2013. “The key factors that are driving the switching from xenon illumination to laser are the running-costs savings and the opportunity to improve the quality of the projection,” says Pier Carlo Ottoni, sales and marketing director at Cinemeccanica. “With our solution we demonstrated to our customers that it is more convenient switching to laser illumination instead of remaining with xenon, in particular if the lamps are 4.5 KW power or higher. We have installations in which the cinema pays a monthly fee to lease the equipment that is less than the amount they were paying in a month for the xenon lamp running costs.” Business is growing worldwide for the company, which has already installed 15 cinemas over the past two years.

Increased brightness is another important factor for exhibitors considering laser projection, particularly in the context of how it can potentially revitalize consumer interest in 3D programming. Stuart Bowling, director of content and creator relations at Dolby, believes laser can help drive consumers back to 3D more often by addressing their most common complaints about the format. “One of the technical challenges 3D has always had are the light levels,” he says. “When images are projected at such a low light level, the contrast and color saturation diminish to a point that it becomes disengaging to the viewer. Having the capability of laser based projection, we can now deliver 3D movies at full brightness at 14 foot lamberts. Images look far more vibrant, more color saturated, more engaging, and it’s a much better experience.”

Christie’s senior director of product management, Don Shaw, extends that argument to 2D screenings, especially as it concerns the recent investment from exhibition in private-label premium large format offerings. Shaw sees laser projection as a leader among the many distinguishing technologies available to exhibitors today. “In general, he says, “it’s an ideal time for exhibitors to start looking very closely at laser technology—today for premium large format screens, and with an eye to future laser technology advancements that will bring RGB laser projection to a broader range of cinema screens.” The observation comes from experience; in December 2015, South Korean giant CJ CGV became the first exhibitor in the world to install the company’s RGB laser projection system, designed to feature more wavelength diversity to address speckle issues on silver screens.

Rich McPherson, senior product manager for NEC’s Digital Cinema Projectors, says he believes the benefits of laser also apply to the event-based film slates of today’s movie studios. “The new high-profile tentpole films will absolutely benefit from laser projection, whether RGB laser or laser/phosphor,” he says. “The biggest reason for this is the built-in redundancy of the laser diodes, which will help prevent the possibility of a black screen. Other advantages include an extremely slow decay in brightness when compared to lamp-based systems, along with a better white/color uniformity in the image.”

Investment behind the booth has cooled as the overwhelming majority of global screens has already converted to digital projection. Instead, exhibition is in a period of heavy investment in innovations like recliner seating, larger screens, and expanded concessions. That only makes the inroads into laser projection by global leaders such as CJ CGV all the more compelling, considering the ever-expanding footprint they carry across several international markets. No less relevant, however, is the impact and timing of Santikos Entertainment’s decision to fully commit to laser technology. If laser was an emerging technology five years ago, today it is already being seen as a viable distinguishing factor for entire circuits. The message is clear: laser projection is no longer considered strictly a premium offering but is increasingly seen by the industry at large as a new standard for the cinema experience.

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