Lighting the Way: Harkness Screens Celebrates 90 Years of Innovation

Harkness Screens

It all began with the vision of a Scottish master draper in Borehamwood, England, 14 miles northwest of London. Andrew Harkness founded Harkness Screens in 1929, abetted by his 18-year-old son, Tom, fabricating woven cinema screens at Borehamwood’s film studios. Today, Harkness Screens is a worldwide business, based in five countries and supplying thousands of screens to more than 130 countries.

A mere two years after his business was founded, Andrew Harkness died. But his new venture was so successful, he was able to leave his family just under 7,000 pounds, today’s equivalent of 450,000 pounds. Twenty-year-old Tom took over the operation.

Harkness has consistently been a pioneer in the theatrical-screen arena. A turning point for the company came in the early 1940s, when Tom Harkness investigated how to apply the synthetic plastic polymer PVC to his products. He eventually created and patented the Tearseal method, which welded the plastic together with a flat, invisible seam. By the 1950s, he had figured out how to put small perforations into the material, enabling the placement of speakers behind the screen.

In 1952, the Harkness business was acquired by the Rank Organisation, the giant British film production, distribution, and exhibition company, known for the muscular man banging a gong before the opening credits of each of its movies. Along with Rank acquisitions Bell and Howell and Wharfedale Ltd., Harkness became part of a new division called Rank Audio Visual.

In the 1980s, Harkness introduced its first coated gain screen, Perlux, which delivered more light on large screens. And the company was ready for the digital revival of 3-D in the early 2000s, having developed a new polarized silver screen, the beginning of the Spectral line.

In 2013, Harkness launched its Digital Screen family of software tools, designed to ensure that architects, installers, and exhibitors apply the correct specifications when they design cinema screens. The platform consists of the Digital Screen Planner (for spec calculations); the Digital Screen Calculator (for equipment selection and calculating operating costs); the Digital Screen Modeller (real-time 3-D auditorium modeling); the Digital Screen Archiver (for storing brightness measurements); and the Digital Screen Verifier (a light measurement app for the iPhone). Harkness Screens recently announced a major investment in a new user interface across all tools and the addition of a secure cloud-based central user and data management system called “my Harkness,” enabling better collaboration between teams and project stakeholders. The new suite of utilities is expected to launch in 2020 after beta trials.

Five years ago, Harkness introduced Clarus XC technology, designed to work with all passive 3-D systems. The fourth-generation “d-smooth” coating technology has properties resembling those of white screens, producing deeper colors and a sharper picture in both 2-D and 3-D.

Harkness Screens entered a new era in 2013 with the arrival of Mark Ashcroft as CEO. A native of the U.K., Ashcroft had spent 15 years in the United States as an executive covering international markets for retailer Party City and the Zeiss consumer optics company. Under Ashcroft’s leadership, the company introduced the aforementioned digital tools and expanded dramatically in China, India, and the United States. Ashcroft reflects on the venerable company’s past and future in this Q&A.

When you first arrived, you said you wanted to transform Harkness from a manufacturing company to a technology company. Can you elaborate on that?

Fundamentally when I did my due diligence before joining Harkness, what I saw was a company that was very manufacturing orientated and had a history of manufacturing cinema screens. I think unconsciously the company were unaware that they were also providing some real thought leadership on how to manage light within the cinema. I was fascinated by the prospect of being able to manage light. I’d come out of a consumer optics background where managing light, managing vision, was the main focus. As I visited Harkness teams around the world, I was really impressed by the level of expertise the company had that it was deploying almost anonymously. My feeling was, with that level of respect from the industry, we could really build on that and take that forward.

The company has had significant expansion in the last few years. Could you talk about the impact of your expansion in China and India?

I’ve always been aware of Bollywood as a consumer. Coming into Harkness, the team had identified India as a market for significant screen expansion, and we believed that having a manufacturing plant and a team of people close to the market was the way to assist in the growth of Indian cinema. So we took a decision to invest in Bangalore and focus on two significant parts of the business. The first was supporting and supplying the big four multiplexes, and the second was continuing to upgrade the single-screen theaters across the country. We still are of the belief that there is significant upside in screen count in India. We believe that as an economy, there is very significant development to come, predominantly fueled by the growth of retail shopping malls—that has been limited over the last few years because there’s not been enormous foreign investment in new retail in India. We’re of the opinion that that will change over the coming years. We’ve positioned our manufacturing facility at the heart of the Indian economy, and today we’re fast approaching manufacturing over a thousand screens a year there.

China has always been a good market for Harkness. There’s been a lot of acknowledgement that Western screen technology has advantages, from the optics to fire certification, from invisible seams to the ability to make larger-size screens. There’s always been an underlying demand at the top end of the Chinese market for screens.

So we took a decision in 2016 to put in a massive new facility, probably 60,000 square feet, so that we could deploy our latest screen-coating technology, allowing us to manufacture screens up to 16 meters in height. That’s been an important step, and we continue to drive the presentation quality in the Chinese market. But we’re fortunate that we’re able to work with some really well-known international names—Imax, Dolby Cinema, Barco, Christie, RealD. That’s really helped us to grow the business in China.

Here in North America, 3-D doesn’t seem to be quite as pervasive as it was 10 years ago. Can you talk a little bit about the future of 3-D and where you see it heading?

I think it’s all about content, and I personally believe that 2021 looks to provide some tremendous 3-D content. And I would expect that that’s going to give 3-D in North America a reboot. I also believe that 3-D done well is a fantastic consumer experience, whereas 3-D done badly can be a very dark experience. The new deployments of laser projectors really should allow 3-D to be shown at the correct brightness levels, and with movies such as Avatar on the horizon, that could be a tremendous boost for 3-D in the United States.

Would you say that laser technology, with its improved brightness, is making everyone’s job a little bit easier at Harkness?

I would say it makes our job more difficult. There’s a phenomenon called laser speckle. How would I describe it? It’s a glistening, sparkling-type effect. And depending on the model of the projector, that speckle can be very pronounced and it can be sometimes difficult for the projector manufacturers to mitigate that speckle within the projector. So they really reach out to companies such as ourselves to help develop this sort of mutual technology between the screen and the projector—that’s a significant challenge because the big projector manufacturers all have slightly different approaches to their laser technology. We’ve certainly got some of the leading screens that work well with all manufacturers, but you wouldn’t necessarily recommend the same Harkness screen with a Christie projector as you would with a Barco projector. In one way, that’s playing to our strengths—we’ve got the experience of engineering different surfaces for different challenges. That’s a significant opportunity for us.

Can you talk about some of the landmark Harkness innovations over the years?

I’ve had the honor to research the last 90 years, and that’s been a fascinating experience in itself. Our founder started life in Scotland as a master draper and got into cinemas because cinema screens were cloth and had to be laundered. So he set up a business to launder screens. But what he discovered was that after the first wash, the screen couldn’t necessarily go back to the same cinema because it may have shrunk. So he would find another cinema that needed a slightly different size screen. It was quite an interesting enterprise.

That was the time Walt Disney Productions was starting out; it was the first year of the Academy Awards—1929 was a good time to be around cinema. The next [milestone] was around 1940, ’42—the discovery that PVC could be used as a cinema screen, with perforations. The landmark at that point was being able to weld together panels of PVC so that there were no seams visible. That was Harkness’s reputation from the 1940s to the mid-’70s, when Harkness produced a gain screen. This was the first time Harkness started to manage light within the cinema, and subsequent to that invention Harkness has continued to influence the way light is managed in the cinema by creating new surfaces. We’ve taken light management to different levels now, where we’re able to optically review a screen and model which seats are going to have the best experience in the house. We’ve invested in our digital resources to support cinemas as they optimize their theaters. That’s something that I’ve encouraged, and 90 years on we’ve got some of the industry-leading technology to support light on screen.

How has the reception been among exhibitors to all the digital planning tools that you provide now?

Looking at the numbers on the Apple platform, we’d had over 15,000 downloads. And if you look at the number of people within our industry, that’s a large number of downloads—it’s massively encouraging. In the North American market, we’ve seen these tools being used by a lot of independent cinema owners who need to compete against the multiplexes, and they’re promoting the fact that the theater has been optimized by Harkness. And it’s those digital tools that allow us to do that. We announced at CineEurope that we will be rolling out an enhanced digital modeling platform, probably with a major launch at CinemaCon 2020.

What will that entail?

At its heart is the creation of what I describe as a “My Harkness” account, allowing customers to access very freely information that’s on our platforms. Whether that’s using our Digital Modeller, our Digital Calculator, or just checking on the screen size from a deployment that was made a couple of years ago. It’s an effort to allow the customer to have available information to manage their business. In many ways, it allows us to integrate some of the more sensitive pieces of information that we use. A good example is fire certification. It’s very difficult to achieve some of the fire certification standards around the world. We work tirelessly to meet all those standards. Countries like Japan and Korea are incredibly difficult. Having achieved it, that certificate has an importance that you don’t necessarily want other people to be able to reproduce. We give our Japanese and Korean customers the access to that certification in a secure way that means the certification can’t be manipulated or abused. With changes to building regulations in parts of the world, the ability to have that fire certification is really important. I’m very often asked: Can you make cheaper screens? And the truth is that the obvious way to make cheaper screens is to take the formulation apart and to not have fire retardancy within the screen. As CEO of the Harkness business, that’s absolutely not going to happen. We’re going to continue to have the highest standards of fire certification, and if that means that our screens are more expensive, that’s because we really believe that cinemas need to be a safe environment for the consumer.

What’s the most important thing people should know about maintaining their screens?

You know, if you go to Japan, some of their screens have been in there for 19 years and they’re pristine; they don’t even look like they’ve been installed for a day, let alone 19 years. And that’s fundamentally because the Japanese culture is one of care for the environment. When they clean, they don’t use a leaf blower to blow the popcorn and the Gummi bears towards the screen. There’s housekeeping that allows screens to maintain their life span. A screen is a great place to hide air conditioning, but if the air conditioning goes on and off, then you get dust blown through, and all of a sudden the screen can become contaminated. We try to avoid any sort of caustic detergent on the surface because that can, particularly for 3-D screens, completely depolarize the surface, which creates a poor experience for the viewer.

Ang Lee’s Gemini Man has come out in high frame rate. What are your hopes for that format?

It’s very interesting to see the focus on high frame rates, high definition, high contrast. There’s no doubt these technologies can really lift the viewing experience, and I’m a great advocate of working across the industry to make the viewing experience as good as we can. I think that millennials typically have got a 4K TV at home. They stream on their tablets or on their iPhones, and they’re acutely aware of what the image quality needs to be. And they want to go into a cinema and enjoy the image quality. It’s incumbent on all of us in the industry to work on formats that give them that. Certainly from a Harkness perspective, we’ve been thrilled to be able to work with the likes of Dolby on Dolby Cinema or a European company like Ymagis on some of their technologies to allow us to marry the right screen with the new technologies. We’re committed to doing that.

On a personal level, what are some of the most spectacular movie experiences you’ve had?

The one that always sticks in my mind was seeing The Shawshank Redemption on TV first and thinking, wow, I love this movie. And then seeing it on the big screen, I’m thinking, wow, why did I not see it on the big screen first and foremost? That’s the one that really stands out for me. I certainly think there’s a generation of consumers out there that will have seen stunning movies first and foremost on a tablet or an iPhone. And I would love to find a way of saying to those people, you know, go and have a look at it on the big screen; you will see the difference. I find myself watching 10-minute slots of lots of different movies as I visit cinemas around the world. I love going to the cinema in India—it’s just a completely sensory experience on so many levels. Some of the Indian content, they just know how to present it. 

I watch 3-D in a different way now that I’m with Harkness. I’m looking beyond the action—I’m trying to work out whether or not the screen is performing correctly. So that creates a different view and experience for me. I look at movies that I have been associated with over the last six years because Harkness has put the screen in for the premiere … Bohemian Rhapsody at Wembley was amazing. It just blew me away what we were able to do, and the movie itself—I thought Rami Malek was absolutely outstanding.

Anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to comment on?

The big thing is our commitment to the environment. We take our environmental credentials very seriously. We’ve just launched an internal environment plan for 2020 where we’re looking at electric vehicles and at solar power for our factories. We’ve been able to reduce our volatile organic compounds by 98 percent here in the United States. All our screen coatings are now water-based—it’s not so long ago that they were solvent-based. We’re looking at different ways of upcycling and at used cinema screens. The environment has always been important to us, but it’s certainly something that we’re really embracing across the group now. I think our efforts are helping our customers and are something that we’ll be further investing in.

You’ve got to sit down sometimes and think beyond the P&L. I’m fortunate that our shareholders demand that we as a global manufacturer think beyond the next quarter, and we’re determined to continue to do that.

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