Dolby Cinema hit a major milestone in its young history with this summer’s inauguration of its 100th location at the AMC South Bay Galeria 16 in Redondo Beach, California. The Dolby Cinema concept has grown gradually in recent years, expanding its presence in key markets in Europe and Asia as its U.S. presence, through a partnership with AMC, has simultaneously expanded. AMC has been the early driver in open locations, representing 77 of the concept’s 100 active sites. The U.S. circuit is scheduled to reach a total of 160 Dolby Cinema locations by the end of 2018.
A steady content pipeline is crucial for any new premium concept, an area the company has focused to grow as more Dolby Cinema locations pop up around the world. More than 100 titles have already been announced or released for Dolby Cinema, including upcoming high-profile releases like IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Flatliners, Granite Mountain Hotshots, Darkest Hour, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Dolby Cinema’s journey began in Barcelona, at Cinesa’s La Maquinista location. “That was actually kind of our proving ground,” says Stuart Bowling, Dolby’s director of content and creative relations. “When we started this program, we wanted to do this in a commercial environment where we wanted to be way off the radar. So we actually started fleshing out the concept in Maquinista. That theater has actually changed several times since we started, because we started the concept even before the projection technology was ready. So originally that theater had a specific design with special projectors to help make the picture brighter. Then we were able to finalize the look and feel of the overall concept of a Dolby Cinema, which is the faceted ceiling. We then went back into Maquinista and finished out that design, with a swap once the Dolby digital projectors became available.”
A big part of the concept’s success is precisely the exhibitor’s ability to customize different aspects of Dolby Cinema according to each venue’s specifications. “There is give and take in what we do. In some instances, we change some of the aesthetic of the theater to help fit within what works for the exhibitor,” says Bowling. “There are the main principles of Dolby Cinema, which are across every theater around the world, and then there are some design elements that we allow change in, depending on the exhibitor.”
Dolby’s partnership with AMC in the United States is a prime example of that approach. The Dolby Cinema auditorium in AMC’s Empire 25 location in New York City’s Times Square has undergone several changes since becoming one of the first Dolby Cinema locales in the country. “If you look at that room, the design aesthetic of what we did there, AMC has actually morphed over time,” Bowling says. “The red lighting on the speakers has gone away—there have been design-change elements like that. We have flexibility with the exhibitor as to what they want to do. Another unique example with AMC is that they have transducers inside the seats. We haven’t seen that anywhere else yet. That’s something AMC wanted and we were able to accommodate that.”
French exhibitor Gaumont Pathé is the latest to join the bandwagon, announcing 10 Dolby Cinema locations to open in the coming months in select sites in France and the Netherlands. Reel Cinemas has also emerged as a close partner in the Middle East, with plans to open two locations in Dubai this year. In Asia, the Chinese exhibition boom has already brought 19 Dolby Cinema locations through Wanda Cinema Group—with plans to reach the century mark in the coming years.
One of the biggest turning points for the Dolby Cinema concept came with Dolby’s acquisition of SLS Audio in 2014. It gave Dolby the ability to incorporate speakers and amplifiers into the system from the start. “We bought SLS for that reason,” admits Bowling. “We wanted to redefine how amplification works in a movie theater. Traditionally, amplifiers are either stereo or maybe four channels. But we said, ‘No, we have Dolby Atmos. We’re now amplifying all of these surround speakers. How can we do it differently?’ The team were fantastic to come up with a Dolby amplifier. You’re saving money; you don’t have to have all these racks to put the amps in. You’re cutting down on installation time, since it’s all plug and play. That adds more value back to the theater operator.”
Improving the technology while reducing exhibitors’ investment has been part of the magic formula for Dolby Cinema’s proliferation around the world. The timing couldn’t be better, stresses Bowling. “There’s a big investment cycle happening. New screens? Obviously, in Europe there’s not a lot of new screen activity compared to China, which is still prolific. A lot of the investment here is all about refreshing and renovating theaters, providing newer technologies. Especially as we’re coming out of our cycle of VPF as well. They’re looking at ‘What is the next thing I should invest in?’”