Tech Innovations from CinemaCon 2021 Aim to Boost Movie Theaters’ Recovery

CinemaCon 2021 provided an opportunity for some of the world’s leading cinema technology companies to meet with exhibition’s top executives for the first time since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis has exposed cinema vendors to the same disruption and upheaval currently affecting exhibitors, with global sales stopping suddenly in March of 2020 and only now crawling back to operation. That impact was in evidence at this year’s CinemaCon trade show, where numerous tech providers faced obstacles like international travel restrictions and budgetary constraints that affected their usual presence. A number of top companies in the space, however, were able to attend with their usual presence—overcoming logistical hurdles in order to meet with colleagues in person.

“[Covid-19] is not going to go away completely,” says Cinionic CEO Wim Buyens, whose own presence at the event came down to the last minute due to the strict travel restrictions in place for European executives. “We have to learn to live with it as we resume our business and activities. Being at a show like this allows us to meet in person with our customers, make plans again, discuss opportunities, and see how we can get people back into theaters. Yes, we’ve been doing a lot of this on [videoconferences], which has been great, but it is different when you are face to face.” 

These meetings come at a critical juncture for the cinema industry. The cinema recovery effort is currently stalled in the lingering final phase of the pandemic: while vaccines are readily available in most of the world’s top box office markets, the emergence of new variants has eroded part of the momentum from the spring and summer months. In the weeks leading up to and following CinemaCon, several major studios announced a new batch of release delays—renewing concerns from exhibitors about the prospect of another barren winter slate.

A string of box office hits in August and September, however, helped assuage those fears. Titles like 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy and Candyman set the stage for the dramatic, record-setting debut of Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The film outperformed all expectations to claim a $75 million three-day debut, the second-highest opening weekend of the pandemic, and becoming the highest-earning Labor Day weekend release of all-time with $90 million. 

Within days of the performance, Sony announced it would be moving its super-hero sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage up by two weeks. Disney in turn granted the remainder of its 2021 slate theatrical exclusivity

Exhibition is now counting on a consistent stream of high-profile titles through the rest of the year. With that piece in place, cinema technology providers believe the industry is positioned for a renaissance driven by their latest innovations.

Several of the tech providers at CinemaCon cited the last turning point for exhibition—the transition to digital cinema that came on the heels of a wave of circuit bankruptcies and consolidation—as an example of how technology can spur an industry-wide recovery. The process to implement new technology standards may be slow, but innovation will ultimately help distinguish the moviegoing experience from the home—especially when the same content is available at both places simultaneously.

“It took six and a half years to transition to digital—there was no reason not to do it, it had all these advantages—and yet, it took six and a half years to get somebody to move on it,” remembers Jack Kline, the CEO of Cinity. Kline helmed Christie, one of the major manufacturers of digital projectors, during that period. 

During those years, Kline was tasked with evangelizing the concept, abandoning proven analog systems in favor of a nascent technology. It didn’t help that this transition represented a considerable investment, with the obvious benefits of transitioning to digital being a mid-to-long-term proposition. “We’ve come a long way since, moving from digital projection to laser and doing amazing things with audio,” says Kline.

While companies like Christie still offer xenon-based digital projectors, other major players like Cinionic exclusively offer laser projectors. “The technology has advanced so much, we’re already on our third generation of laser,” says Buyens. “We have a whole lineup—2K, 4K projectors, up to 55,000 lumens—which means laser is now mainstream. People do not consider lamps anymore if they are updating or building a new location. There are exceptions, but I would say 80 to 90 percent of the customers we talk to are not considering lamps for those projects.”

Buyens cites two principal reasons why laser is the new norm for digital cinema: a superior viewing experience and lower total cost of ownership over the lifetime of a projector. Cinionic’s Laser Upgrade program converts existing xenon-based Series 2 projectors to laser alternatives; the company announced earlier this year it was converting 300 sites across India and South Asia to laser under this initiative

More recently, theater renovations like that at CMX Cinemas’ Dolphin 19 location in Miami, Florida have similarly transitioned to laser through Cinionic. Its “Laser Now” program provides financing assistance to those cinemas looking to make the transition while still dealing with the financial pitfalls of the pandemic. 

In August, Cinionic went one step further in promoting laser projection—announcing a consumer-facing marketing campaign alongside Cinemark to educate moviegoers on the benefits of laser.

Investment in new technology may seem counterintuitive for an industry in the midst of a financial crisis. With a reduced exclusivity window, however, cinemas are turning to tech upgrades to distinguish themselves from the same content being available at home. 

“As the business recovers and investments begin to happen, we’re seeing Premium Large Format (PLF) becoming one of the first things that exhibitors turn to,” says Christie CEO Brian Claypool. According to the executive, most Christie projects that were disrupted by the pandemic have resumed, as theaters look to leverage new technology for the release of titles like No Time to Die in October. 

Cinonic has found traction in the PLF space with Cinionic Giant Screen (CGS), attracting exhibitors abroad—in markets like India and Saudi Arabia—and domestically.

Image Provided by Cinionic

“We wanted to target the total solution at an affordable price, because we know there are strong brands out there—which is great—but we felt there was a need in the market for an offering that has the chance to [complement] what exhibitors currently have,” says Buyens. “For example, we have exhibitors who want to elevate their own PLF brands by bringing a ‘Powered by Cinionic’ giant screen.”

Buyens describes Cinionic’s PLF strategy as an outcome-based model. “You buy the performance of the system. And that’s slightly different than when people buy a projector or a screen, which ages over time. Here, you buy an outcome. By making [it] affordable and having CGS power your existing PLF brand, exhibitors can take control of the full package.”

Circuits looking to complement branded PLF screens from providers like Imax and RealD have begun turning to bespoke packages from tech companies to boost premium auditoriums under their own brand. 

In Cinity’s case, their principal distinguishing factor is the ability to accommodate High Frame Rate (HFR) projection. While HFR has yet to achieve the ubiquity of 3D, immersive seating, or Imax, Cinity’s Jack Kline remains confident it will eventually catch on with the public once filmmakers begin implementing it in their films with more frequency. 

Cinity auditoriums have begun sprouting up in China. In the United States there is currently only one system installed, at the Harmony Gold private screening room in Los Angeles, where filmmakers can screen and workshop their content with the new technology.

As with any emerging technology, the concept is still being introduced to potential stakeholders before the launch of a consumer-driven awareness campaign. 

“We have to educate the studios, filmmakers, and ultimately exhibitors on what it is—but everything starts at the beginning of the food chain, making the movie,” says Kline. 

“24 frames per second is over 100 years old,” explains Kline. “We went from film to digital, took audio to immersive sound, improved the contrast ratio, the color gamut with laser—but we’re still making movies at 24 frames per second.”

Jack Kline speaking at a recent event. Image provided by Cinity

Cinity has the advantage of having two major filmmakers evangelizing the HFR format. Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man were both shot in HFR, the latter going up to 120 frames per second. Kline notes that James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequels will be shot at 48 frames per second. “People called digital 3D a gimmick until Avatar came out. They saw what the technology could do once you married it with cinematic storytelling, and that was what launched 3D globally.”

“I’m facing the same challenge I had when we were moving from film to digital,” adds Kline. “People said, ‘Oh, that’ll never work. It looks like TV.’ Nobody says that anymore.”

While the transition to digital cinema represented a revolution for the industry on every level, the current drive to premiumization is part of a trend that Moving Image Technologies’ Joe Delgado calls the “amenity-based model,” which was already on the rise before the pandemic. “You started seeing exhibitors of all sizes—small, medium, large, multinational—going to an amenity-based business model: the recliners, the elevated food and beverage menus, the premium technology,” he says. “These amenities were the catalyst to seeing per cap creeping up across the country. And in this industry, we live and die on two metrics: box office and per capita spending.”

Delgado’s company, Moving Image Technologies, was founded in 2003—right as the industry recovered from a string of bankruptcies and the consolidation that followed. Despite the uncertain outlook of the time, MIT was uniquely positioned just as the global cinema industry began its transition to digital, playing a crucial role in the process and minting its reputation as one of the industry’s top technology players. Delgado is celebrating another milestone for MIT in an uncertain time: the company went public during the pandemic, in July 2021, an important next step for its future. 

“Exhibitors recognize that going to the movies is an out of home experience that requires more amenities to get you to expand your out of home dollars. We were very fortunate in that we were right there when Alamo Drafthouse started to grow and the dine-in cinema business model took off. I think that’s the future: better amenities and better customer service. We were well on our way in that direction before Covid-19 got in the way.” 

One of those new amenities that found some traction before the pandemic was the introduction of DCI-certified directview LED screens designed and optimized for cinemas. Moving Image Technologies is the only company in the United States that has done directview LED cinema screen installs, having outfitted the Samsung Onyx screen at Pacific Theatres’ Winnetka, California location and Star Cinema Grill’s Houston, Texas site. MIT is also working closely with the other tech manufacturers currently offering DCI-certified directview LED screens. 

“It’s breathtaking when you see it in person,” Delgado says about the technology. “Like 3D, but without the glasses. The image is so crisp and sharp, even with the house lights on, that it allows you to optimize the auditorium for other uses, like private rentals for company presentations or gaming tournaments.”

“Covid definitely took the wind out of that sail,” he says about LED’s adoption by major cinema chains around the world. “But as the price of the technology goes down, I think it has a chance to have an ubiquitous roll-out and, eventually, in the next three to five years, become more of a reality. We’re at the forefront of that move and excited about its future.”

While the pandemic has slowed the adoption of high-end technology like directview LED screens, it has also opened the door to other innovations. Christie began developing a disinfecting UV light solution with Ushio back in 2013, exploring the feasibility of ultraviolet light that could eliminate pathogens inside an auditorium at a frequency that would not affect patrons or the moviegoing experience. The two companies developed a patent for it and signed a licensing agreement before the pandemic took hold. When it did, the companies worked together to bring the product to market. 

“There are other products that can be used for lower ceiling applications, like offices, but there is no other device specifically designed for auditorium ceilings of 28 or 22 feet,” says Christie’s Claypool. “The problem with other devices is that the higher up they’re installed, the less effective they are. We made a device that’s specifically targeted for rooms with high ceilings like cinemas.”

Claypool notes the UV fixtures usually aren’t operated during a movie—the screen could see shades of light depending on their installation, and the fan noise could affect certain scenes of a film—but that’s ultimately up to the exhibitor. The UV solution can be automated to run on a schedule between screenings, decreasing the sanitation time before the next showtime starts. 

Cinionic’s Buyens expects challenges from the pandemic to linger into 2022 but remains optimistic about an eventual recovery. “I think it is still going to be a difficult year. We’ll still have constraints on the financial health of our customer base, exhibitors,” he says. “I believe most cinemas will be open in 2022. I believe the content pipeline will keep content flowing to cinemas; the slate looks very strong for the second half of this year. Those are the fundamental pieces for the recovery: making sure cinemas are open with fresh content.”

MIT’s Joe Delgado echoes that assessment, confident the industry can bounce back by focusing their efforts on the moviegoing experience. “70 percent of the folks that I started with in the late 1980s are still here because they stuck to a simple formula: offer your customers the best possible presentation,” he says. “If you go back years ago, the cinema industry used to take a beating in the media—it was always the same, the sticky floor, the expensive popcorn. We have evolved so far from all that.”

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