Checking in with Cinionic: Wim Buyens Talks Laser, Past, Present, and Future

by Rebecca Pahle & Daniel Loria

At this year’s CinemaCon, Boxoffice sat down with Cinionic CEO Wim Buyens to talk about one bit of tech that was on everyone’s lips: laser, laser, laser (with some LED thrown in for good measure). 

It’s been about a year now since Barco launched the Cinionic brand. How has this last year been for you?

We’re launching our new laser platform. Right now we have more than 25 laser projectors in the range, the most of anybody. You could say, “Well, you always did projectors as Barco.” But it’s slightly different now because of the angle on promoting, not just the projector, but the total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the projector. We at Cinionic look at the more holistic picture, the total experience.

We also have what we call laser as a service, which means that technologies can be upgraded to laser. And that could be with a different business model—it could be a pay-as-you-go kind of thing. Cinionic drives a different course than we did before. That’s important.

There are 185,000 screens in the world. Barco has 85,000 installed, which is Cinionic’s heritage. But what’s next? That could be prolonging the lifetime with laser as a service but still getting efficiency, still getting much less power consumption, so that the total cost of ownership is lower. Or you go to a new generation, right? What is that, then, going to be for your screen? We have the small ones up to the big ones, and then to PLF.

Which brings me to the last point I wanted to mention: our PLF solution. We have two flavors. One is white label, which means that as a technology brand we’re supporting the PLFs of the exhibitors. A lot of box office comes from existing PLF brands, and we want to contribute to that. If you look from a projector point of view, probably two-thirds of the PLFs are Barco projectors anyway, right? Not branded, but they use Barco. And the second solution: If people want to have a brand, we use THX. THX comes in with the same technical solutions, but they are branded THX Ultimate.

So there are two options: THX Ultimate and the white label?

Right. The former is if an exhibitor says, “I don’t have the power to market my own PLF. I want to have a name, and I can’t afford some of the names in the industry. I want to have something that is the best value for money.” That’s how we market this, as the best value for money. We’re probably not the best in everything for PLF, but we are the best value for money, because that’s the space I think we should be in. Then they step in, and they use our THX brand with THX Ultimate, and THX will do the marketing.

THX announced its plans for PLF last year at CinemaCon. When did you start getting involved?

When THX changed ownership a few years ago, when Razer took over the company, they wanted to bring the brand back to life, including in the cinema space. That’s when we connected with them and said, “Hey, what do you have in mind?” They said, “We are really about application and branding. Of course, we know a lot about sound and all those things, but we don’t want to get involved in all the technical solutions.” And then we said, “Well, this is maybe a great way for us to potentially team up together.” 

We have a Cinionic giant screen, which is our PLF solution. And we said, “We don’t see ourselves as being the branding company. That’s not what we want to be, necessarily. So let’s partner on this one.” It doesn’t mean that it’s an exclusive agreement. When the customer wants their brand, that’s great. If the customer says, “No, I have my own brand,” then we will work directly with the customer. 

Interest is strong, because people make money on PLFs. By the same token, as a cinema industry, our belief is that a massive amount of people want to go to cinemas, right? There’s nothing wrong with the cinema business. Not at all. We just need to enable people. And enabling people is two things. You need to make it cheap enough so people can see the movie when they couldn’t before, in the rural areas of the world—Latin America, APAC and so on. And if we get more into the markets where cinemas are more developed already, then the “wow” effect has to be there. You have to be able to show something different. Being able to really get a proper image and optimize the sound, with laser and other technologies, is really critical. Yes, small screens are OK. That’s one segment of the market. But we also need big screens. You want to be impressed.

At the same time, home entertainment is advancing so much. People can get bigger and bigger screens for personal use.

At home, it’s about convenience. It’s for the family, which is great. But, for me, cinemagoing is a social experience. It’s going out. You want to have a good time. You want to spend some money on food and beverages and so on. It’s different than at home. I think both will grow. The consumption of visual entertainment is increasing. I’m afraid that the kids, 10 years from now, are not going to write anymore, and everything’s going to be visual. I think you’re going to see a massive amount of consumption at home, but also a massive amount of consumption in cinemas. We just have to make sure that the cinemas are destination places, are entertainment hubs, that you get that “wow” factor. That, as an industry, we need to keep on fueling.

Looking at Cinionic, we see a lot of the pioneering innovations that you guys have had—for example, immersive audio with Barco Auro and panoramic screens with Barco Escape. What lessons did you learn from those experiences, of being there early and trying to grow a market? And how have those lessons informed the current strategy of Cinionic today, which seems a little bit more geared toward laser projection and democratizing laser for all cinemas?

Barco came from being a small player to having more than 50 percent market share with 85,000 projectors installed. You could say, OK, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean that that success is going to be the same success moving forward. So I said, “If we don’t change our stripes, we are not going to stay successful like we are.” That’s the start of Cinionic. 

My thing about learning is you need to keep on trying. Don’t feel bad about trying if something is not successful. We feel incredibly proud about Escape, incredibly proud about Auro. New things come. How can we embrace them and make sure they can flourish? Dolby did a great job with Dolby Atmos, which came later and of course enjoyed a big push in the market. 

The industry needs to make space for innovators and entrepreneurs. And that’s tough. Because there are the big guys who typically who have the marketing power and the big pockets. But innovation often happens with smaller companies. That’s how things start rolling. I think we need to keep on doing that. But it doesn’t mean that when you start something it’s all going to be a direct success. Sometimes you have to say, “Maybe the timing was off. Maybe our approach was slightly off.” 

I don’t think Cinionic is laser as such only. It’s just that laser is an important ingredient in how the cinema market will change moving forward. I don’t think we have embraced it yet enough as an industry. But we are in the early days. With laser, you can run your cinema differently. It is a change of a lamp to a laser, yes, but it’s much more than that. It’s moving from analog to digital. You can run it much more digitally, much more remotely. You can be much more flexible in the performance of your equipment. With a lamp, it does its thing, and you have to just rest on what the lamp does. With laser, it’s the opposite. With laser you can tune to whatever you want to get out of it. There’s a way to run a cheaper complex, and laser is an integral part of enabling all of that.

When I said the vision of Cinionic over the next 10 years will be different, that’s because we’re going to be much stronger in the “wow” effect. It’s not enough to hold to the DCI specifications. The DCI spec is guidance, which is great. But, as an exhibitor, you have to attract butts in seats. I’m happy to go to a movie, but I want to be impressed. I want to have a good time. I want to get a good seat. I want all those things. As an industry, it’s not enough just to show a movie. 

The industry is changing, and I think that’s a good thing. I see many more entrepreneurs as exhibitors today than I would have seen 10 years ago, because they have many more options. It’s a new era. And the first piece of technology critical to driving that change is the projector. Cinionic is all about enabling diversity of experience.

So the laser component is a building block.

It’s an important building block. It takes a lot of effort to get that right. When you try something new, you have to try, try, try, try again. It costs you 10 times more effort than you would have expected. That’s the nature of it. And that’s why we’re doubling down on laser.

There are so many different types of PLF experiences out there. Everyone’s getting in on it, including now Samsung with their LED-powered Onyx screen. What’s your take on that technology?

I’ve been responsible for LED for quite a few years at Barco. LED has been evolving quite a bit. Never say no to any technology. If it’s not today, it could be tomorrow. It could be five or 10 years from now. Never discard anything. LED is definitely a technology on the rise in general.

But when running a cinema, there’s a certain ROI you need to have. In some segments of PLFs, which are the very large screens, the price points are different, clearly. But when I get to the mainstream, I’m being challenged a lot about how cheap can we have it. Cheap is not negatively intended. That means value for money. And the equation there today with LED—and it’s not about Samsung—is just not there yet.

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