After turning heads with its Samsung Cinema Screen at invitation-only demos during CinemaCon 2017, Samsung begins the year with a global rollout strategy as it plans to unveil commercial installations at high-profile movie houses around the world. The 34-foot-wide screen features a high dynamic range 4K LED display with 4K resolution, and a peak brightness of 146 footlamberts and an audio especially developed by Samsung’s recent acquisition, JBL Harman. In May it became the first LED cinema screen to meet the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) standards.
The revolutionary technology wouldn’t only replace screens, but would introduce completely different configurations to auditoriums by doing away with the need for a projection booth. Its first commercial installations came last year, at South Korea’s Lotte Cinema World Tower in July and Thailand’s Major Cineplex Siam Paragon in October. Samsung’s ambition is to have its Cinema Screen installed in 10 percent of cinemas across the world by 2020.
Boxoffice discussed the new technology with Chris Buchanan, director of business development at Samsung Electronics, and Daniel Saenz, customer solutions manager at JBL Harman.
Can you tell us about the background of this project? When did the cinema get on your radar?
Buchanan: Hyunsuk Kim—who is now the head of all consumer electronics for Samsung in Suwon, Korea—is a longtime film buff. As with other of our products, some of the innovation kind of bubbled up through our R&D system. He began to realize we had the opportunity to really change cinema display. We developed this product fairly quickly; it was prototyped, and we had a screen installed in Los Angeles in November of 2016. We worked with multiple studios to really dial in the product to make sure it was suitable for motion pictures. The end result was debuted at CinemaCon last March. The screen has 4K resolution; it’s a 10-meter screen so it’s about 34 feet. It has 8.8-plus million pixels. It’s a direct LED, so it’s not a TV—the DNA is shared more with outdoor LED signage, just in terms of how it works. But it’s highly refined in terms of the color and contrast and accurate reproduction, which is obviously so important to the filmmakers.
The biggest question I hear about the screen concerns the audio. Can you tell us how you developed an audio solution for this technology?
Saenz: It all came together very fortuitously. Samsung announced their intention to buy Harman a little more than a year ago … right about the same time that the first screen was put in. That deal closed actually right before CinemaCon last year.
There came a certain time, last January or February, when we were actually able to start working with each other—the Harman team with the Samsung audio labs. We did a lot of research on the audio solution, but we first had to get legal approval because of the pending acquisition. Essentially, that meant the audio solution we showed at CinemaCon last year was more of a proof of concept. We had basically two and a half or three weeks to actually go into the room and set up a sound system for the first time.
Over the past nine or ten months, we had a lot of iterations for how to approach that before we settled on a way to solve the problem. Our goal for the audio solution was to present it in a way where a special mix is not needed. We also wanted to make the audio solution so good that the studios, the post-production guys, and the engineers wouldn’t push back on it.
Samsung’s audio lab has really researched how the human mind processes sound. There’s this idea called the head-related transfer function, HRTF, which really looks at how the human brain processes sound. We have two ears on the side of our head, so we have very good accuracy in the horizontal plane. But in the vertical plane, since we only have one plane that we’re listening to—we have ears and nothing on the top of our head—we actually can do a lot of things with that.
What Samsung has come up with, and actually has written a paper on, is how you can fool the brain into making it believe that the sound is coming from a lower position. To do that, you have to manipulate the sound with a special [equalization]. In addition to that, we have speakers that are bouncing sound off the screen at the right elevation, that give the brain something to latch onto at the right elevation.
We’ve installed this solution in a couple of places around the world, and the response has been phenomenal. We’ve had people from other industries and audiophiles going into that venue looking for the speakers behind the screen and can’t find them. They can’t find the speakers! We’ve done such a good job of figuring out that audio solution.
In the venue we have set up in Korea, we’ve had many producers and engineers walk away saying it is the best-sounding room that they’ve ever heard, in 5.1 or 7.1. Everywhere we go, everyone says the same thing: the visual of the screen is stunning, but they’re really concerned about the audio. Our approach has really been that the audio must be as stunning—if not more so—than the visual, because so many people are concerned about it.
What is the current footprint?
Buchanan: The very first commercial usage of this screen was at the Lotte Cinema located in World Tower in Seoul. That was back in July of ’13, where it was very well received. There was another Lotte Cinema in Busan, which is in the south of South Korea. We had a screen there for the Busan Film Festival, so a lot of the top Asian filmmakers got to see the film, see the screen. A lot of filmmakers in the U.S. got to see the screen. We are installing a 2K screen for grading purposes, in a post-production house in Los Angeles that should be up and running by mid-February.
What have been some of the biggest concerns from exhibitors that you’ve heard so far?
Saenz: Scalability is one because the product we have in the market right now is a 10-meter, 34-foot screen, period. Some exhibitors have told us, “Well, my auditorium fits a 42-foot screen. I want my screen to go side to side, top to bottom.” That’s a limitation of fixed resolution screens. The way we handle that is by introducing pixel pitches. Our screen is a 2.5 millimeter pixel pitch. We will probably go to a slightly more than 3 millimeter pixel pitch on an offering, which would give us a screen that would be more in the 45- to 50-foot range to accommodate the two most popular screen sizes.
The alternate way to do it is, we can go wall to wall with a screen and we can do scaling of an image, of the video. That’s something that’s not currently allowed by DCI, and it’s quite controversial within the studios, but I think things will go that direction over time.
Exhibitors seem really excited about the screen for new builds. We’re working with an American exhibitor who’s redesigning his whole cinema, because he no longer has to have a projection booth. He can pitch his seats differently, because there’s no light cone to worry about people’s heads getting in front of. In that one example, because of the lack of both the booth and the lower costs and cooling compared to projectors, the exhibitor was telling us that he was saving literally tens of dozens of dollars per square foot in construction cost. So you quickly realize that in new construction, this is a game changer.
Buchanan: The screen is passively cooled; even when we’re operating it at peak brightness, which is the equivalent of 146 footlamberts, the screen remains cool—it doesn’t increase the air-conditioning cost. It is an efficient device in terms of turning electricity into light and not heat. When we start doing hotter than image grade content, it will consume more power than it does with standard image grade content, but we feel that the experience trade-off is well worth it. That’s the real value add on the screen. It’s something that I know the company believes—I certainly believe—that when consumers see their favorite movie on the screen, they’re going to only want to see movies on the screen. It’s a really wonderful viewing experience.
We’ve seen some circuits deploy laser projectors across entire complexes. Is this the way to go with the Samsung Cinema Screen, or is it more of a premium solution?
Buchanan: Coming out of the gate, it’s a premium solution. It’s an expensive screen. It’s more in line with your high-end RGB 6P laser. That being said, we’ve had a lot of interest in a 2K version of the screen, which is a smaller 5-meter screen. It’s going to be a few years before it would be considered a replacement screen; it’s just a matter of scale and time. The cost of LEDs is going down. We just introduced our micro LED panels at CES [Consumer Electronics Show] last week. That’s a very promising technology for some of the independent exhibitors, to have a smaller form factor but want the highest-quality picture possible.
Exhibitors can also use our screen to host other events. The brightness levels allow you to do things like showing a movie with the lights on, because there’s so much brightness that the screen doesn’t reflect; it’s a matte black screen. That really plays into where people have dine-in experiences or the pub/movie experience, because you have to have it pitch black so people don’t cringe every time somebody opens the door. What we’re seeing in certain locations is e-gaming. Any of these places where you start talking about the screen, turning the facility into a multiuse facility, is just another avenue for the exhibitors to make money.
Are there any plans to implement capabilities for 3D formats?
Buchanan: I think we’re going to have an announcement about 3D in the very near future; we’re not quite ready to do it yet. That being said, I think if you look at a movie like a 4K DCP [Digital Cinema Package] HDR version of a feature film, there is so much depth of field, so much detail in the shadows, you almost don’t need 3D. That’s me speaking, not Samsung.
Would you say that, at this point, the screen is more geared toward PLF and larger auditoriums?
Buchanan: When you start looking at PLF auditoriums, 300- or 400-seat rooms that aren’t always full, you realize that one of the options this screen gives you is a PMF-type model as well—premium medium format—where you can see the latest DC or Marvel movie in a great-looking screen that might be a little more intimate but a better visual experience than your average PLF screen.
That’s part of the conversation that we’re having with a lot of exhibitors. You look at how some of these cinema complexes are set up; you have your PLF and then a bunch of medium and small rooms. It’s kind of surprising to me that you wouldn’t have in these medium-sized rooms, not only premium seating but a premium audio and visual experience that you could charge a surcharge on as well.
Last year you had to have a good connection to see the Samsung Cinema Screen up close at CinemaCon. What sort of presence will you have at the event this year?
Buchanan: We’re going to be doing a lot at CinemaCon. I believe we’re going to have the 2K screen on the booth, so that will be a great experience for everyone to come and look through. Last year was invite only; this is going to be open to the public. So be looking for a lot of things from us activity-wise, not only on the booth but around the event as well.