A Bright Future: New Innovations—and New Players—Enter the Digital-Signage Sector for Cinemas

It’s not a coincidence that the concessions area at most cinemas around the world is strategically placed between the lobby doors and the entryway to the auditorium. Exhibitors want to capitalize on that foot traffic. Historically, however, efforts to attract attention to concessions as visitors headed to their seats were fairly limited. 

That has begun to change thanks to recent advances in digital signage. Innovations like menu boards, video walls that play trailers, dynamic posters, and digital box office booths with show-time displays are only a few of the cutting-edge technologies that have benefited the moviegoing experience. 

“At first, digital signage was simply about putting up a TV and looking at the picture. It was about the tech, about having an automated sign. Today, a TV hanging on a wall isn’t enough. You have to find a way to capture audiences’ attention,” says Alan Roe, CEO of JACRO, one of the leading providers in the industry.

Providers have changed alongside the technology. Leading players like Texas Digital, Radiant, and NCR have all come and gone in the space. In the last year alone, two leading cinema technology companies—Christie and Barco’s Cinionic—scaled back their efforts in the immersive-lobby and digital-signage space. Christie’s Allure division, which provided immersive signage solutions to exhibitors, was sold to Creative Realities in November. Cinionic, for its part, has decided to increase its focus on its projection technologies. 

The shift in the market has created opportunities for new players looking to get into the space. The most familiar brand among them is Samsung, which entered the cinema industry in 2018 with Onyx, its premium booth-less LED screen. With the sales infrastructure already in place, Samsung has begun to ramp up its efforts to provide digital-signage solutions specially designed for cinemas. Samsung’s first series of digital-signage installations in the United States is under way in Utah with Megaplex Theatres. Internationally, outdoor Samsung monitors are currently adorning the historic Grand REX cinema in Paris—installed by Boxoffice parent company Webedia Movies Pro.

“Screens are everywhere; they have become second-nature to us,” says Stephane Goubault, who oversees digital signage at Webedia. “Audiences are used to seeing digital displays anywhere they go: from billboards in city centers to the phones they carry in their pockets. It’s crucial for cinemas to keep up, and digital signage is the latest evolution of the iconic movie marquee, a way to welcome audiences. Done correctly, it can become part of a theater’s identity.” 

The current leader in digital signage for cinemas is NEC Display Solutions, which provides a full suite of products for the sector. NEC counts on some of the industry’s biggest circuits, including AMC Theatres, Cinemark, Marcus Theatres, and Regal Cinemas. For concessions stands in particular, NEC offers preprogrammed menu boards with the capacity to promote family combos during matinee shows—and more adult fare, like alcohol service, in the evening. 

Jeff Kaplan, national account manager at NEC, has noticed a trend when it comes to digital signage renovations in cinemas. “When an exhibitor remodels an existing theater with digital signage, they begin with just the concession area, box office, and lobby,” he says. “Once they … have discovered all of the amazing opportunities they never knew existed with the technology, the theater owner enthusiastically begins adding more and more signage to enhance the experience of their customers.”

That trend has introduced comprehensive solutions for the moviegoing experience—from digital marquees to touchscreen point-of-sales kiosks outside the theater to digital menu boards and dynamic video walls leading to the auditorium. “I think [digital signage] will become more sophisticated as larger integrators create better mechanisms for exhibitors to develop more robust applications to entertain their customers while waiting for the movie,” adds Kaplan. “The idea is to bring your customers in early, let them spend time in your lobby and purchase more food and beverages, thereby increasing their per cap spending.”

The next frontier of digital technology is still around the corner. Samsung’s cinema screen might be priced as a premium product for exhibitors, but LED could easily play a leading role at cinemas outside the auditorium. 

“What if the concessions boards weren’t flashing up with a picture of the latest concessions item but with something that added to the experience?” asks Roe. “For example, think of a movie like The Ring. How would you feel going into that movie if you suddenly saw the creepy figure from that movie creeping out of the concessions screen? Studios have some of the best creatives in the world at what they do—why not create menu boards that inherently promote a movie, and are peppered with the pricing? You could have a 12-wide screen of promotional material for a specific movie that is produced by a studio that leaves space for the cinema’s logo and pricing as a part of the graphic.” 

Screen innovations like the one Roe describes could represent the next phase in digital signage. There are countless innovations that cinemas could incorporate from other settings: interactive touchscreens in airports, video walls in sport arenas, or dynamic advertising in billboards. It echoes Goubault’s belief that digital signage is an overlooked—and underrated—part of the moviegoing experience. “If you look at some of our recent projects with CGR in France, our idea is to integrate digital signage as part of the experience of going to the cinema,” he says. “In a time when studios and exhibitors are talking about offering audiences more options—diverse programming, expanded concessions, premium formats—having a cohesive digital-signage solution helps theaters express their individuality and the full scope of what they have to offer.”

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