CINEMACON 2016: Ken Mason Inter-Society Award – Ted Costas, SGI QC

Tell us how you started your career in exhibition. 

I started back in the late ’80s at Lucas Films with THX. You know Hollywood—to get anywhere you have to know people, and a friend of mine connected me with another guy who ran the THX group down in Los Angeles. I spent about 15 years with THX, and in that time we were working at the Theater Alignment Program; it was known as TAP back in the old days. Back then, before digital sound and digital cinema, it was all quite revolutionary. The THX technology really improved the industry as a whole. It provided a bar that people tried to beat. And it wasn’t long before exhibition really did start beating the bar, even without THX as a threat. It didn’t take long before everybody started hitting that level of quality with digital sound and eventually digital cinema. In the old days, THX was much more needed than it is now. When you’re immersed in the film, immersed in the story, if there’s a problem with the sound or the light or scratches in the movie or glitches in the digital—that pulls you out of it. You realize, “Oh, I’m watching a movie here. I’m not into the story.” So it was really important to me; I love the film industry, and having a quality presentation is paramount.

I moved on to Dolby after THX and started their print-checking program. That was a big step in my career. I’m a big fan of Dolby even though I’m not there anymore. They did a lot of good things for me and put me in a good light with the studios. And I think I helped them as well with the things that I helped introduce: Dolby Digital Cinema, 3D, and things like that. I really I enjoyed my time at Dolby.

You followed up your time at Dolby by founding your own company, SGI Quality Control. Why did you decide to go into business on your own?

I’ve been doing quality control in film and digital exhibition my whole life. I started with TAP and THX and then went to Dolby and expanded there in the digital world, and it just got to the point where I saw it could become a little niche business that I could have my own take on. I have 25 years in the industry working with a lot of studios, and it’s paid off. I needed my THX and Dolby days to be able to go out on my own. It was a logical step. It was one of those things where I felt I did everything I could at THX and Dolby. It was time for me to move on and try to do something myself.

What have been some of the most exciting projects you’ve tackled in your career?

I could go on probably for the next three or four days. Back at THX we did the first four digital cinema presentations of all time, with Star Wars—Episode I in New York and L.A. It was an amazing project, but there are so many of those: working with Pixar on their projection contest and its accompanying website. That’s something they can use in every movie they’ve done—it’s an extra effort of theirs to get their movies presented better. They used to send out test films and T-shirts and all this stuff to projectionists to get a little extra care for their movies, and I love the fact that they cared so much about the quality.

At SGI we recently helped out with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight with their 70-millimeter release at something like 90 sites. In that process Boston Light & Sound had to install 80 new 70-millimeter kits with a platter and projector. They sent these out to sites, and we helped out with about 20 of them. That was a crazy project and, to be honest with you, I didn’t think it was going to happen. When they told me what they were planning, I was like, “Really? Eighty new units you’re going to send out and people are going to install them?” Boston Light & Sound knew everything they had to do, and they ran the project like geniuses. It was really fun to partner with them. I hope there’s something else like that coming up with another 70-millimeter movie. It’s just amazing how well it went—how many sites ran perfectly with 70 millimeter, without scratching or damaging prints. It was a huge success. It’s funny when you think “innovative” and you go back to film, something we used in the old days. When, really, “innovative” should be digital and all. Any of these projects where people go out of their way for something special for presentation is what keeps us going.

Looking back on those early days of digital cinema, when it was still a concept, did you know it would someday be a standard in the industry? 

I did think digital cinema was going to work; it’s just the financing aspect of it that was always a question for everyone: how was this going to get paid for? Initially, a projector cost a quarter of a million dollars; they’re much more reasonable now. The crazy thing back then was all of the different specs, the different kinds of projectors, and what content was going to be shipped. There were 14 different server companies in those days, so everybody had different packages to send. We knew it was going to happen—it was just a matter of how long and when.

The Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF) really was the difference-maker in digital cinema becoming a household name. Think about it: if you’re sending content out to 100 screens, and 90 of them have a different kind of server or content or specs, it’s worse than any kind of film dual-inventory situation that you can have, because you have to know exactly what package you’re sending to exactly what theater, whether they can play it, and then get confirmation that they can. It made digital cinema very complex. Just sending a hard drive—sometimes you’d have to have several different kinds of hard drives. It was really crazy. The ISDCF brought all the vendors together, all the exhibitors and the studios in one room, and they kind of figured it out. They handled everything in a way that the market wasn’t handling it. A lot of people thought that decisions would be made in the marketplace: Who’s going to win out with the server? Who’s going to win out with this? But really it was the ISDCF that helped it happen so that digital cinema is now everywhere, as compared to still being a 50 percent situation. It was five years of struggle and then, bam! Overnight, no more film. Jerry Pierce and the ISDCF just paved the way. It wasn’t trailblazing; it was laying down bricks and making it nice and smooth so that anyone could drive that path. Jerry Pierce did all the heavy lifting. We just kept the ball rolling.

What new or upcoming technology do you find intriguing?

I get excited every year when new technology comes out—“Wow, what is this? Is this going to work?” I kept questioning Dolby Atmos when it first came out. I was afraid it would distract people from the film, but I think Atmos works quite well. I loved it in the new Star Wars.

In 3D we’ve always had light level issues, and I think lasers are going to solve them. I send guys out to the field a lot just to check light levels before a major release comes out in 3D, and we find that almost a third of the sites we visit, even in top market theaters, the light levels are dipping a little below what they should be. For 3D you need those light levels to be right on point to get the effect. If the light’s low or if you’re sitting too far to the side, the 3D effect goes away. If you want to go see 3D, you want to see it done right. I think lasers are going to solve a lot of those issues, and that’s half the battle: sound and image.

A lot of the new stuff that is coming out—the movable chairs and sound systems that have speakers going around a whole room, images projected on the walls—a lot of these things are interesting. I’m not sure how they’re going to work but I love seeing them develop.

What are your thoughts on high frame rate (HFR)?

My company, SGI, did an indirect study on HFR, and when I say “indirect study,” I mean we didn’t really know we were doing a study until after the fact. I’ll be honest with you—I really didn’t like HFR when I first saw it in a movie. It felt very video-like to me, like watching an outtake reel. There was something about it that bothered me and I didn’t enjoy it. It took me out of the story several times and made me think, “What am I watching?”

I had some of our guys doing quality control on a movie and asked them what they thought about HFR, one of whom watched the film about 10 times, and he told me that his experience improved. The first time he saw it he felt exactly the same way I did, but he eventually started to get into it in repeat viewings, and by the sixth time he watched the movie he really enjoyed the high frame rate.

Now, that’s how the brain functions with 3D. A lot of people have issues with 3D: they get nauseous, especially with the previous iteration before digital cinema. Digital 3D doesn’t affect as many people as film 3D did, but sometimes it can become very wearing for the brain and fatiguing for the eyes. That’s how the brain processes some of this new technology, and I really do believe our brains will get accustomed to something like HFR over time, but the first couple of times it’s going to be hard for the audience to digest. I don’t know how many people are going to want to go back to something they didn’t have a good experience with in the first place. It makes it a difficult sell. How do you tell people, “Oh, you’re going to love it on your sixth time”?

Now I’m not sure this is necessarily the case. Two of the guys that did QC had the exact same thing happen—they got accustomed to it after several viewings and began to enjoy it. Whether or not everybody’s like that, we’ll see. I still haven’t gone back to it. I don’t want to see a movie like that.

That’s the big thing for the audience when it comes to quality: Not everybody asks for a refund—some people just leave and don’t come back to that theater. People don’t realize how important presentation is because people don’t always speak up. That’s the big enemy we have in this industry—we want people coming back. We want them to make this theater their regular place. We have a very jaded audience now, and people expect perfection. They have high-definition television; they have phones with 4K. It’s ridiculous how much quality they’re used to and they expect now.

Have you been disappointed by a technology that failed to take off with audiences?

There was a Mel Gibson movie we did—We Were Soldiers. The director did a special mix of that movie with a “Voice of God” channel—a single speaker from the ceiling in front of the screen. It was a special mix he did, and I used to play that in a demo for people, because I had never heard sound so three-dimensional and layered. When you have flyovers and things like that, a lot of times with 7.1 and surround sound you can’t hear things flying over you, whereas this Voice of God not only made things fly over you, it sounded like they really were going over you. It made it so that the swells and the orchestral violins would have a 3D kind of layered effect when it hit the people in the seats. It was quite a great sound experience. That never happened, but today you have Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro and some of other immersive technologies that have a similar effect.

A great thing about being in this industry is working with a lot of amazingly talented technical people. Ioan Allen won this Ken Mason award that I’m receiving. I’m getting an award that Ioan Allen won, my hero, somebody that no one else will ever replace when he moves on and leaves the industry. He’s done so much in image, film, sound. It makes me look good, and it makes my job fun. It’s a great industry and I love to be part of it.

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