Despite a Proliferation of Smaller Cinemas, Business Lies Elsewhere
With hardly any new construction going on, existing theaters are renovating—but insiders think that will change in the next year, and premium cinema appears to be primed for that upswing.
Boutique and premium cinemas have sprung up nationwide over recent years. Featuring super-bright digital projection, incredibly wide screens, and powerful, high-quality sound systems, together with enhanced customer services, these premium venues are truly elevating the movie-going experience.
But do these premium theaters—which in some cases are designed to compete with local IMAX houses and, by offering extensive food menus, alcohol, and waiter service, also attract a clientele that might not normally visit the multiplex—represent a business opportunity for commercial AV integrators, or even manufacturers?
“It’s an entrenched business,” cautioned Barry Ferrell, senior director of cinema solutions for QSC, as he headed to the International Cinema Technology Association’s 36th annual convention in Seattle, WA last month. “There are probably six cinema dealers in the country that do any volume whatsoever, and every major circuit deals direct. I could make 20 phone calls and talk with 80 percent of the business available in the entire United States.”
John Gott, president of SLS Audio, agreed: “As far as getting directly into cinema, it takes a long time; you don’t just jump in. We’ve been in there since 2004, and it’s taken this many years to get some traction.”
SLS Audio’s dedication has certainly paid off. Last year the company supplied a massive speaker system to Regal Entertainment, which, with nearly 7,000 screens, is the largest movie theater operator in the country, for a new Regal Premium Experience, or RPX, theater in Boston, MA. That system design, which utilized the company’s 6500 series products, was duplicated at a new RPX auditorium in Denver, CO.
“We did the very first line array system in the world, as far as anybody knows” in a cinema, added Gott. That system, in a 500-seat auditorium at a Wehernberg Theaters multiplex in the suburbs of St. Louis, MO, was followed by similar installs for the Santikos chain in Texas, including a large multiplex in Tomball, outside Houston. “It’s all line arrays, all 19 screens,” he reported.
QSC, too, has plenty of movie theater installs under its belt, especially premium venues such as RPX, AMC Theatre’s ET X (Enhanced Theatre Experience), and Carmike Cinemas’ Big-D, according to Ferrell. “We’re the largest provider of equipment to those premium cinemas. The AMC ET X is 100-percent QSC systems, with some of our largest, most powerful screen channels, and tons of surrounds.”
The premium cinema experience is a global phenomenon, Ferrell noted, and began in Australia, with plenty of business also coming to QSC from Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. “One of the most advanced theaters is a 14-plex in Ecuador. The big auditorium has a cinema system and a complete QSC WideLine line array. They can do concerts in the same room. A guy in the Netherlands did the same thing.”
Premium cinema appears to be here to stay, Ferrell continued. “I think every major complex within a large metropolitan area that has the population to support it will probably add some form of premium experience auditorium—at least one. There’s virtually no new construction going on, because the developers aren’t building any malls, so there’s no place for the theaters. If the theater circuit can’t build new theaters they have to do something with their budgets, so they’re basically renovating existing properties. My gut feeling is 2012 will see new construction start.”
But with the major chains dealing directly with manufacturers and installing the gear using in-house technical teams, independent audio integrators seem unlikely to get in on much of the action. Ferrell, who reported that QSC maintains totally separate pro audio and cinema product sales channels (cinema dealers typically also carrying processor, projector, screen, and related product lines), has observed some problems with non-cinema specialists getting involved in movie theater projects.
“Our biggest complaint when trying to deal with the pro audio guys when they dabble in cinema is that they have no concept of the SMPTE 202M standard for calibration and tuning,” he said. “They try to do things the way they would normally, with lots of subjectivity and bringing in a Smaart [analysis] rig, which results in a non-standard situation.”
The SMPTE standard sets out the level and tonal characteristics, formerly known as the X-Curve and, historically, Academy Curve, used on film studio mixing stages and for playback. “If someone tweaks the subwoofers and surrounds to play louder than the standard they’re not staying faithful to the original mix,” he noted.
Neal Rockman, whose Cardinal Sound and Motion Picture Systems has provided technical and sales support in the Mid-Atlantic region since 1975, has seen the same problem from the other end of the scale. “Once home theater came around everybody became an expert in multichannel sound. Unfortunately, in larger spaces, there are still people who are trying to adopt a giant home theater system rather than something specifically made for a larger auditorium.”
In Rockman’s experiences with boutique screening rooms, “Often they’re done with a very high-end, high-fidelity [audio] system integrated into a digital cinema system where we may or may not have had direct input into that design.”
Rockman added, “I’m not trying to be negative, but there have been so many changes in the last five years. One of the things that I see is less and less emphasis being put on consistent audio quality.”
Similarly to the switchover to digital HDT V, audio has taken a back seat in the current transition phase as content creators drive exhibitors to adopt digital projection by the end of 2013. “Most of these digital cinema installs are being done on top of whatever was there,” observed Rockman. “They’re not upgrading sound, they’re simply putting money into the projector because that’s the demand.”
Look for business in home theater, advised SLS Audio’s John Gott. “There’s probably more potential there, with people still building nice rooms in their houses. Then there are corporate screening rooms, and boardroom applications, too.” Pro audio products can offer cost savings and a better spec than some expensive home theater systems.
Steve Harvey (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been west coast editor for Pro Sound News since 2000 and also contributes to TV Technology and Pro Audio Review. He has 30 years of hands-on experience with a wide range of audio production technologies.
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