Daniel Benitez, chief technology officer of Bardan Cinema, and Bill Beck, The Laser Guy from Barco, have developed a fond friendship based on mutual respect and a love of the movies. Each brings a unique perspective on and experience with laser illumination for cinema: Benitez, as a third-generation cinema integrator and an early adopter of laser, and Beck, as an innovator in laser technology and former founder of pioneering laser company Laser Light Engines. Both are dedicated to bringing the best possible visual experience that lasers can provide to every cinema screen for every show.
Here, they discuss the rapid progress of laser cinema projection, the opportunities it presents to exhibitors, especially in Latin America, and its potential impact on the future of cinema for exhibitors and patrons, worldwide.
A Retrospective: The Evolution of Laser-Illuminated Projection
by Bill Beck, The Laser Guy, Barco
The infancy of laser cinema projection began more than 20 years ago, with a few esoteric lab experiments in the 1990s that explored the possibilities of both digital projection and laser technologies. However, they were both primitive and expensive. So the industry pursued a steady path toward the development of Xenon lamp–powered digital cinema projectors in the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, after nearly 10 years of development, my previous company, Laser Light Engines, demonstrated that RGB laser could achieve the image quality required for DCI compliance. Shortly thereafter, Barco demonstrated that RGB lasers could be integrated into a DLP cinema projector and deliver more than 50,000 lumens on a giant screen. Over the next two years, a few exhibitors installed RGB high-brightness laser cinema projectors for their branded premium large-format (PLF) screens, primarily in new or newly renovated cinemas.
The first ultra-high-brightness commercial laser cinema projectors were introduced at CinemaCon in 2014, marking the official launch of laser cinema, about 15 years after the earliest demonstrations. It became immediately evident that movie patrons preferred the laser-powered image quality and increased 3D brightness—and exhibitors did not miss the cost or labor in changing Xenon lamps!
Laser-illuminated projectors (LIPs) began to replace high-pressure Xenon arc lamps (Xenon) with solid-state laser light sources that emit high-power, narrow beams of red, green, and blue (“RGB”) light. In fact, the concept is a special adaptation of a fairly mature trend of using solid-state lighting in place of traditional light bulbs. Laser, it was postulated, would become the “fourth generation” light source for cinema exhibition.
Next came lower-lumen cinema projectors, which used “blue laser–pumped phosphor”—or “laser phosphor” (LP) technology. Whereas RGB laser enabled ultra-high lumen output, long light-source lifetime, and unprecedented image quality, LP technology was designed to increase operational simplicity and reduce total cost of ownership (TCO). LP also delivers superior image quality compared to Xenon, while eliminating lamp changes and reducing power consumption.
While initially LP projectors were thought to bring laser’s operational benefits only to the smallest screens, larger models came onto the market offering up to 23,500 lumens output—a new record for LP cinema! Now exhibitors could choose from a range of laser models from 6,000 to 60,000 lumens, assure consistent, outstanding image quality and color, save 40 to 50 percent on power consumption—and never change another lamp. Not only for one screen, but for all movie screens. The all-laser multiplex was born!
Fast forward to the present day, and movie exhibitors are quickly embracing the all-laser multiplex (or theater chain) as a way to drive higher operational efficiency and lower costs throughout their business. And they get the outstanding benefit of offering their patrons the highest-quality image possible, which drives higher attendance, repeat business, and customer loyalty. A win-win if there ever was one!
Captivating the Latin American Cinema Market
by Daniel Benitez, Chief Technology Officer, Bardan Cinema
When introduced to the potential of laser-illuminated projection for cinema many years ago, we were very impressed with the technology and optimistic for a bright future in Latin America. The market in our region has continued to grow aggressively, far beyond the digital conversion of existing cinemas. With numerous new theater builds announced every year, moviegoers and exhibitors alike are presented with tremendous opportunities to explore the best that current cinema technology can offer. People here love the movies and are always eager to get the best quality entertainment experience for their money.
At first, however, we met with some resistance; it wasn’t an easy sell. Many theater owners had only recently converted from film to digital, so another capital investment, so soon after, was daunting to many. It was crucial to illustrate the huge benefits of laser technology, not only with regard to customer satisfaction and loyalty but to their bottom line. Ironically, many of the smaller regional cinema owners embraced laser early on to gain a competitive advantage over the mega-chains, leveraging their ability to pivot quickly and in a more entrepreneurial way.
Quality is king—a premium, differentiated experience
Every discussion about laser projection begins with the claim that “you have to see it to believe it.” And it’s true! The highly saturated “laser colors,” high contrast, and uniformity of laser-projected images produce a rich and more lifelike movie presentation. Most importantly, laser allows exhibitors to create a branded PLF experience that sets them apart from the competition, offering a real gem that attracts and differentiates their multiplex or theater chain.
Laser also raises the bar for 3D image quality, making it a more lucrative and enduring proposition. 3D movie showings typically require extremely high lumen output and often two projectors for larger theaters. Now, with laser projection, exhibitors can show premium (higher-priced) 3D movies in their biggest auditoriums to more patrons, boosting their revenues and increasing customer satisfaction to keep them coming back for more.
The case for laser in LatAm—no lamps!
One of the biggest benefits of laser projection in our region is the elimination of lamps, which require frequent replacement and are often difficult and expensive to procure when you take into account importation costs and duties. This presents a real challenge in many countries given fluctuating currency exchange rates, transportation costs, and unpredictable logistics delays. With laser projectors, the light source lasts for the lifetime of the unit—up to 10 years—so you essentially “lock in” light pricing, eliminating those issues to recapture your investment in a matter of years.
Additionally, lamps generate a lot of waste heat, driving up electricity costs in the hot, humid environments of Latin America.
Laser efficiency—the power-consumption equation
Because of the way laser light is created, the energy from the wall is converted into completely usable light to the projector. That is, you basically capture more lumen output per kilowatt of electricity consumed. This translates to a 40 to 50 percent reduction in direct power consumption per lumen. In contrast, Xenon bulbs are less efficient and produce nonvisible light, which ends up as waste heat that has to be extracted and cooled. So, you’re basically paying twice: once to generate the electricity, then again to dispose of the heat. In much of Latin America, where the cost of electricity is high and often volatile, this is a particularly vital benefit.
With efficient laser-projection systems, exhibitors can significantly reduce both their initial construction investment and ongoing operating expenses. With the advent of laser phosphor projectors, which are built for simplicity and operational efficiency, exhibitors can install laser throughout their cinemas to reap the benefits of economies of scale throughout their entire circuit. The cost savings compound quickly, and they can see an immediate benefit to their bottom line.
Simplified operations—maximizing your investment in laser
Our goal is to always get laser projection considered early on in the projector acquisition process, and we’ve been very successful here. We have worked with many customers on the front end to help them optimize all the ways in which a laser-projection system can be used to their advantage in terms of operational cost and simplicity.
Adopting laser projection in a movie theater requires a paradigm shift for theater owners. In the past, many exhibitors acquired new cinema equipment and simply installed it into their existing infrastructure, continuing to run their businesses as usual. With laser projection, however, technological and operational changes go hand in hand: exhibitors can optimize the placement to simplify installation, servicing, and maintenance.
On the horizon—the future of laser
As an industry, we are clearly just beginning our journey with laser and its potential. In the future, we see even more innovation flowing to cinema—more impressive advances in both RGB and LP, such as higher brightness levels, higher sequential and ANSI contrast, longer light-source lifetimes, lower power consumption, and yet-unknown improvements to make laser projection an irresistible value proposition. As these technologies continue to grow and develop, we will work diligently to help bring their benefits to our region, our valued customers, and the Latin American moviegoing public.