From a vendor perspective, the 2021 edition of CinemaCon was a muted affair. The world was still in the grasp of the Covid-19 Delta variant, preventing numerous international executives from attending and leaving several vacancies on the trade show floor. The lower turnout didn’t come as a surprise to attendees, who nevertheless found it vital to meet face to face with colleagues after a year-and-a-half battle to reopen cinemas and reengage audiences. At the time, the industry had yet to see a true breakout hit at the box office.
Since then, a string of hits has reached theaters. While the July release of Black Widow helped bring audiences back, its day-and-date availability on Disney Plus Premier Access (the studio’s premium video-on-demand platform) left exhibitors—and the film’s star—feeling that the film didn’t reach its true potential. Recognizing the challenges ahead, cinema technology providers at last year’s CinemaCon recommitted to outfitting theaters for the blockbusters to come.
It only took a matter of weeks for exhibition to score a string of box office hits that helped drive revenue through the final trimester of 2021. Titles like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($224.5M), Venom: Let There Be Carnage ($213.5M), Eternals ($164.8M), and No Time to Die ($160.8M)—all of them exclusive to theaters—set the stage for the record-setting debut of Spider-Man: No Way Home in December.
“We need to highlight what Spider-Man: No Way Home did, especially as the Omicron variant was on the rise. It proved audiences are willing to come back at pre-Covid levels,” says Cinionic CEO Wim Buyens. “Over these last two years of the pandemic, there had been this big uncertainty around the industry. I’ve always been a strong believer that we were going to come back—but until we had a title to prove it, that uncertainty lingered. Spider-Man: No Way Home proved audiences are willing to come back if we make sure, as an industry, that we can pair great movies with a stunning presentation—even during a surge in Covid cases. It gave us the opportunity to step back and say, ‘OK, we can breathe again.’”
Part of the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home is attributable to the investment and attention cinema tech providers and exhibitors have placed on presentation since reopening. The first wave of audiences prioritized premium formats for titles that were available simultaneously at home or within weeks of their theatrical release. The moviegoing experience leveraged technology to distinguish itself from another night spent on the couch, in front of the TV.
French circuit CGR Cinémas, the country’s second-largest chain, experienced this trend firsthand through their premium large-format (PLF) auditoriums. Known as ICE (Immersive Cinema Experience) Theaters, CGR’s PLF offering combines peripheral LED panels with premium sight and sound technology. The circuit counts on slightly over 40 ICE auditoriums across its 705 screens, each of them overperforming significantly in Q4 of 2021. According to Guillaume Thomine Desmazures, ICE Theaters senior vice president of global sales, 70 percent of Dune’s total box office at CGR (a day-and-date title in the U.S.) came from ICE auditoriums alone. When it came to the theatrically exclusive Spider-Man: No Way Home, 53 percent of CGR’s €3 million box office receipts for the title came from ICE showtimes. “That’s due to an extremely high occupancy rate, which is 300 percent higher in premium than in a standard auditorium. When you combine higher occupancy to a premium ticket price it gives you those kinds of results.”
The performance of PLF auditoriums has prompted circuits to renew their focus on premium moviegoing experiences. This can be achieved through implementing either vendor-branded formats like ICE Theaters, their own exhibitor-branded offerings, or a combination of both.
In some cases, circuits have worked with a tech partner to ensure exclusivity of a vendor-branded PLF concept within a specific market. That is the case with AMC Theatres, which signed a deal with Dolby in 2015 to become the only chain to offer Dolby Cinema auditoriums in the United States. Globally, however, Dolby Cinema is available at over 275 locations through 22 exhibitor partners in 14 countries. An additional 15 Dolby Cinema locations are currently committed worldwide. “Our technologies have the power to elevate shared moments and make them even more meaningful and memorable,” says Dolby’s Jed Harmsen, head of cinema and group entertainment. “We’ve seen audiences are willing to pay more for them and are likely to connect with brands that can provide compelling entertainment moments.”
For most exhibitors in the United States, a PLF strategy includes a mix between vendor-branded auditoriums—typically a large-format screen and immersive seating provider—and their own custom-built concept. Cinionic’s focus in the sector has been to assist exhibitors in building out their own PLF concepts with its own CGS (Cinionic Giant Screen) technology. “Our motto has always been, how do we create resilience within the industry?” says Buyens. “Our strategy around premium screens is therefore focused on lifting exhibitors’ brands, powered by CGS, to allow them to attract new audiences and carve a strong presence within the industry as an exhibitor.”
Exhibitor-branded PLF auditoriums have boosted the current crop of best-in-class offerings from cinema tech providers. Atmos, Dolby’s immersive audio solution, is currently installed in over 7,500 auditoriums around the world—usually included as an amenity in exhibitors’ own PLF concepts. Similarly, laser projection has emerged as a new standard for both new sites and renovation projects. “Today, there isn’t a customer we’re talking to that isn’t considering laser,” says Cinionic’s Buyens. “It’s not just about the image quality, it has also brought home the fact that you can save 50, 60, 70 percent of your electricity costs over the lifetime of a projector. That may have been less of a factor four years ago, but it is definitely an issue today.”
Innovations that appeal to audiences don’t necessarily have to be tied to new technologies. In France, an upstart cinema architecture project has been slowly gaining recognition through its unique design concept. Ōma Cinema employs a modular system of architecture to customize cinema auditoriums into tiered pods or levels. Ōma can transform existing auditoriums by installing their patented seating pods—similar to the private balconies of an opera house—reconfiguring a movie theater’s traditional seating arrangement. “The main inspiration is from the Italian-style theater,” says co-founder Nicolas Chican. “Instead of having balconies on the side walls, you have them on the back wall. Ōma combines the intimacy of being seated in a small place with the grandeur of the big-screen experience.”
First developed in 2017, Ōma waited until 2020 to receive design patents from Europe, China, and the United States. Plans for its first auditorium, a Pathé location in Paris, were interrupted with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020—just as the company was preparing a global launch strategy. The concept, according to Chican, is viable in both new builds and renovations.
“Innovating in architecture is important—with technology you always have the risk that what is being offered to cinemas will eventually make its way to the home,” says Chican. “As an architectural innovation, Ōma is compatible with any cinema technology. By innovating through architecture, exhibitors have a direct impact on the viewer’s perception. When an audience sees the auditorium, they understand the concept immediately. With projection and sound improvements, you always have to explain the innovation in order to justify it.”
Design is part of the appeal of ICE Theaters as well, with the prominently featured LED panels on the screen’s periphery doing most of the work when it comes to marketing the concept. Spanish circuit Ocine signed a deal with ICE Theaters at CineEurope 2021 that will introduce the concept in the Spanish market in April.
“With Ocine, we started marketing the concept well before opening the auditorium,” says ICE Theater’s Desmazures. “You need to create awareness within the audience to show them there is something new coming into their theater. So for the two months leading into the opening of our first ICE screen in Spain, audiences have been aware that something new and exciting is coming. We placed marketing assets for ICE all over the theater, including a big countdown clock that runs down to when it’s going to open to the public. We’ve put in work in the cinema’s website and email newsletters, and we’ll be opening presales online a week before it goes live. We want to ensure that from day one, we can eventize this premium experience across the circuit.”
While premium technology might hint at emphasizing the “big” part of the big-screen experience, Hong Kong–based GDC Technology is betting that the future of moviegoing will optimize smaller, more intimate auditoriums. Dubbing them mini-theaters, GDC has a specially designed projector, the Supra-5000, built to service boutique auditoriums with smaller capacities. “One of the benefits of mini-theaters is that exhibitors can offer a smaller crowd the same experience as a larger auditorium,” says Man-Nang Chong, founder, chairman, and CEO of GDC Technology. “You can even fit a PLF auditorium, with luxury recliners and DTS:X immersive audio, into a mini-theater.”
The boutique cinema concept has found some traction overseas, particularly in Asia and parts of Europe. The pandemic helped domestic exhibitors realize the potential of a private theater rental program—an ideal use for mini-theaters in any given site. GDC’s attention to the concept also includes its GoGoCinema concept, which introduces an on-demand element to cinema visits by allowing moviegoers to book a private screen and select a film from a portfolio of titles—a process similar to booking a private karaoke room. GoGoCinema launched in Singapore and Shanghai in 2019 and made its domestic debut with B&B Theatres last year. The company plans to integrate the service with more point-of-sale providers and add more circuits to the GoGoCinema footprint through 2022.
Cinema tech supplier Moving Image Technologies (MIT) will be arriving at CinemaCon 2022 with several options and amenities to help exhibitors expand their existing audience base. SNDBX, an enterprise e-sports solution, is a turnkey solution for theater operators to transform their auditoriums into gaming centers. MIT will also feature its MiTranslator, designed to make moviegoing more accessible for non-English-proficient communities across the country. “We are committed to helping exhibitors maximize their operations and streamline efficiencies, and we believe these offerings can help cinema operators reach untapped demographics and turn them into frequent moviegoers,” says Joe Delgado, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Moving Image Technologies.
The cost of outfitting a cinema with any of these innovations presents a particular challenge while the box office is still in recovery mode. An inconsistent release schedule has exacerbated matters, with tentpoles like Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Batman being released three months apart with scant studio support in the intervening weeks. The good news for exhibitors is that the release slate starting in Q2 2022 is poised to appeal more consistently to a wider swath of the public.
“We can’t slow down or idle in wait but instead need to help get exhibitors ready in anticipation for the great content to come. Cost is a big factor in decision making, but never at the sacrifice of quality or performance,” says Brian Claypool, executive vice president of cinema at Christie. “The industry is resilient, and we need to continue to do our part in providing an amazing experience for the moviegoer by bringing technology that makes sense for the future of cinema.”
GDC allows exhibitors to take advantage of a cinema package as a turnkey solution. The package leases a DCI-certified cinema projection system built with a professional cinema audio processor and other professional audio equipment through a monthly expense fee, eliminating capex for the audio-visual equipment involved. It also has a trade-in/trade-up program for operators looking to replace aging equipment like media servers, theater management systems, and library management systems.
Cinionic allows customers to purchase, rent, and finance their projectors. The company also recently introduced a usage model for clients, where operators do not own the projectors but are instead charged based on their usage and outcome stemming from the projector performance. “If there’s great technology but people cannot afford it, we don’t win. It’s our obligation to bring the technology, but also to make sure that people find a way how to use it the best way, to be safe about it, and make it affordable,” says Cinionic’s Buyens.
Christie’s Claypool is confident that a consistent release schedule from studios and a renewed focus on cinema presentation will combine to deliver strong rebound profits for the industry. “Audiences want to see and hear more than what they’ve been accustomed to at home,” he says. “Most importantly, they want to enjoy this experience in the company of others after being kept apart for so long throughout the pandemic.”