ICTA President Frank Tees Welcomes Delegates to the 35th Annual ICTA LA Seminar Series - ICTA ICTA President Frank Tees Welcomes Delegates to the 35th Annual ICTA LA Seminar Series - ICTA

ICTA President Frank Tees Welcomes Delegates to the 35th Annual ICTA LA Seminar Series

April 5, 2022
ICTA President Frank Tees Welcomes Delegates to the 35th Annual ICTA LA Seminar Series

Opening Remarks – Frank Tees

Every winter, the International Cinema Technology Association holds its Los Angeles Seminar Series (LASS) at the Universal Hilton. The 2022 Series marked the 50th Anniversary of the Association and, as current President Frank Tees noted in his welcoming address, serves to bring together executives from exhibition, the studios, equipment vendors and technicians with the common goal of “supporting technology in cinema.” This February’s LASS came after a two-year hiatus, necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tees congratulated delegates and their firms for surviving the pandemic, particularly as cinemas were behind the 8-ball in being declared “non-essential,” depriving them initially of government financial support.

Beginning a theme that echoed throughout the various sessions, including John Fithian’s ‘Conversation’ with Bob Sunshine (below), Tees noted that “…we now need, more than ever, to support training endeavors and provide mentorship to gain (back) the support teams that we lost during the pandemic” [due to closures, furloughs, etc.]. The technical field engineers, many of whose careers began in the projector booth, are in short supply, noted Tees, who urged attendees to motivate a new, younger generation into cinema-technical careers through active mentorship and OEM training. “The task is particularly challenging because there’s no such “curriculum in universities or trade schools,” said Tees.

One of the goals of the ICTA is to help educate the members of the industry and as such, sessions were recorded and are summarized in the following mini-articles for those who could not make the LASS.

An Interview with Erik Aadahl, Three-Time Academy Award Nominee (audio) and Stuart Bowling, Dolby

Erik Aadahl and Stuart Bowling

It’s traditional to have a creative luminary, be they a producer, director, videographer or sound expert, end the two-day LASS every year (aside from one final slate of member presentations), by being interviewed by Stuart Bowling, the Director of Content and Creative Relations at Dolby Laboratories.

This year’s engaging and informative guest was Erik Aadahl, a visionary in the audio business – ‘sound designer, supervising sound editor, Co-Owner of E2 and three-time Academy Awards nominee for Best Sound Editing (2009, 2011, 2015), as well as a BAFTA nominee for Best Sound in 2019 and 2022.

Although only six years old at the time, Erik’s love of film and the sound within began with a trip to see ET with his parents. “I loved movies, inherited my dad’s Super 8mm camera and made my own films, learning to edit with analog techniques and converted my parent’s dining room into an editing suite when I got my first video camera when I was 12,” recounted Aadahl.

He never thought he could make a career out of his hobby, and it was only by chance that in pursuing an education in biology he noticed that USC had a film-editing school as well, so he thought about going for the double-major. But realizing his heart was with film, he ended up at USC and as a senior was the supervisor of the Steven Spielberg sound stage, where he “fell in love with sound, and then, fortunately, got a job in sound when I graduated.”

Since then it’s been one success after another as (usually) the supervising sound editor, whose job responsibilities Aadahl recounted in earnest (including dialogue, sound effects and onto editing and then mixing – i.e., adding music – as well to the film). The process and pitfalls of field recordings were also explored at length, prompted by Bowling.

For Aadahl, the box-office success of A Quiet Place (2018) and A Quiet Place: Part II (2020) showed how important – and impactful – the role of ‘sound’ could be in telling a story that resonated and engaged moviegoers. To emphasize that, a clip was played, featuring the day one arrival of the alien creatures that hunt by sound from the original, enrapturing the LASS attendees, as it had done for millions around the world in 2018.

Aadahl told many interesting stories, all with a point or two about how sound plays an essential role in our movie-going experience, including how he used live elephants enjoying their bath time to get the trumpeting sounds he needed for the dragons in the Transformers film series. And sometimes inspiration came from everyday events. “I parked in the driveway and stepped out into the night, and I got a gurgling sound from stepping on a half-filled garden hose, and recorded it into the Autobot Bumblebee’s vocals…All of sound design is in essence, an abstract art form,” observed Aadahl. “Images come in through our front doors while sound sneaks in through the back doors” of our psyche.

Dealers Roundtable: How the Pandemic Affected Your Business

Moderated by Beth Figge, Sr. Sales Mgr., Dolby

As a fitting complement to Joe DeMeo’s panel the previous day on how the pandemic affected (and in some cases changed the exhibitors approach to business), Beth Figge moderated a panel on the same topic but from the dealers’ perspective. Joining her were notable cinema design and implementation dealers, including Blake Titman, GM, Strong Technical Services (‘Strong’); Paul Shoemaker, Field Services Director, Cloud Industries; Kevin DeRijck, CEO/Owner of Cinematronix; Frank Tees, Vice President, Technical Sales Support at Moving iMage Technologies and Patty Boucher, President of American Cinema Equipment (‘ACE’).

Tees began with an observation that knowledge and use of collaboration technologies certainly soared due to the pandemic and then DeRijck noted that the pandemic actually brought him closer to his customers, as they were both going through the same, shared and daunting experience with the pandemic.

But probably the biggest problems caused by the pandemic were supply-chain related, with product availability and shipping issues increasing the overall stress of cinema stakeholders, said Figge. Did these make dealers rethink how they approached their business, she asked?

“Good project management has become paramount,” said Titman, “forced by the pandemic, and implementation has become a moving target, with us pushing and pulling people to sites more than ever before.” More so than before, so many things are out of one’s control – e.g., product availability – with next-day availability being a thing of the past – hence more pressure than ever on “trying to make your deadlines,” said Titman.

With product availability constrained, Boucher said that ‘out of the box’ thinking to keep the screens lit up, was crucial – and continues to be so. “Spares flew out the door, as the demand was so great but the product was so scarce,” noted Boucher.

Figge maintained that dealers are traditionally the glue that holds the two sides, equipment manufacturers and exhibitors, together, in many cases. Shoemaker agreed and gave a concrete example of investing more in inventory, which helps the manufacturers and the ultimate exhibition customers. “And we encouraged customers to buy and store their own spares,” as part of this out-of-box approach brought on by the pandemic, he said. To which Tees sagely observed that the industry got too comfortable “with having just-in-time inventory shipments,” as well.

Securing prices for equipment for a project that is six-months out, is also necessary, said Tees. “A dealer may need a customer to put a deposit down on ordered equipment, along with storing it,” noted Tees, to which Figge suggested that this topic, around warranties, storage, security deposits, etc., could be its very own panel discussion at the next industry gathering.

Moving to the effect of a good product, like Spider-Man: No Way Out, for customers, DeRijck noted that it also helps dealers, leading to an uptick with his Cineplex (Canada) customer, prompting Figge to ask if shorter or traditional theatrical windows affected the dealer business at all. That’s symptomatic of instability, and certainly it’s making exhibitors mull over and think twice about investments, affecting dealers, said Tees.

Private theatre rentals, gaming and other options; are they being talked about post-pandemic and is there more of that happening with dealers? “Exhibitors are definitely more interested in their venues as family entertainment centers, and as Bobby Franklin [in the Cinema as an Entertainment Centre session] said yesterday, you have to have more than just cinema,” said Boucher.

Titman confirmed that, as dealer-integrators, they are seeing exhibitors wanting their complexes to be totally built with AV over IP in mind, and it’s no longer an option. “The technology might have been new four to five years ago but now it’s commonplace and exhibitors expect it, to use their auditoriums for multiple uses; multiple entertainment events, as well as cinema uses. Whether upgrading older complexes, or brand new, we’re getting asked about it all the time.”

IT, Infrastructure and AV (eSports and Gaming)

Panel Discussion led by Heather Blair, CEO, Cinema Esports Alliance Co. (CEAC)

Continuing with the theme of finding new revenue streams, leveraging non-cinema entertainment in family or cinema entertainment centers and being less “beholding to the studios and concession sales” – in the words of Heather Blair, CEO of Cinema Esports Alliance (CEAC) and president of Women in Exhibition – the LASS 2022 convened a panel of experts on eSports, gaming, pro AV experts and architects/builders. Blair moderated a stellar panel comprised of Malcolm Coley, CTO, Future First Gaming; Theresa English, Principal, TK Architects; Ian Framson, Sales Director/Co-founder of Trade Show Internet; Chase Taylor, Owner, Sound Vision Tech and John Allen, Sr. Account Mgr. and Jeff Mitchell, both with AVI-SPL and on the topic.

Tips flowed from the panel to the exhibitor community at LASS on how to succeed in delivering eSports and gaming in a cinema-setting. First, look at the task being a broadcast production project, not an AV project. Esports is a ‘live sporting event,’ and requires a team to produce, noted Allan of AVI-SPL. Besides a dedicated team, the most important aspect is the speed at which the content is delivered to the gamers and viewers seeing the event. Mitchell added that there’s no one event-type; “there are large-scale, team versus team games; there are realtime strategy games and there are one-on-one fighting games,” said Mitchell, who observed that players are actually plotting action frame-by-frame and they know how many moves are needed, hence the need for speed. And the crowd wants the same speed, without glitches, so “the quality of video production and the quality of the transmission and video signals” must be topnotch.

Recounting his experience in holding eSports events in cinema venues in Wilmington, Delaware, Coley said they went well but there were issues with power consumption and speed-of-content delivery (latency), “so that the audience could react and celebrate the ‘moment,’ what was happening on the big screen…the overall experience was cool,” but the building hadn’t been designed for eSports and the infrastructure drawbacks showed at times.

Taylor confirmed Coley’s observations, saying a building’s network cabling could make or break an event. “AV over IP (internet protocol) gives us flexibility and the ability to move video streams quickly,” so consider where the Ethernet cabling could go,“ and make it so, long before the first eSports event is held. Having it boxed under an auditorium’s risers is crucial, as “we can pull audio feeds from that, video feeds and luckily, that delivery technology is pretty mature now.”

Whether building new or repurposing an existing screen or lobby makes a difference and it all comes down to the architecture, said English. “Obviously a new build makes it a lot easier,” but there’s lots of considerations, some seemingly mundane. “You’re using different furniture for a movie, for eSports, for a live event, and where does it all get stored” is a legitimate question. Events take up most of a day, “so maybe that changes things from a food and beverage (F&B) standpoint,” English reminded attendees. “Do you have the broadband capacity for attendees who won’t be turning off their cellphones” and in fact see live-tweeting and video-taking as part of that culture? So Ethernet networking isn’t the only consideration, she concluded.

Framson, whose credits include the largest eSports tournament where the winning team shared $12 million dollars, down to hotel-ballroom Nintendo tournaments, touted sub-5 and 10-millisecond speeds being necessary hallmarks of any gaming network. “If you’re drawing from an eSports server in the Cloud, you better make sure you’re on fiber (optic cable) almost the entire way, and then copper for the last mile into the switches and closet/console to the laptop on stage.” To English’s point of form following function, Framson agreed that the audience expectations and experience, especially with cellphones, was the opposite of what the moviegoer could or would want to do. “It’s a very interactive and live experience, on multiple devices, for the audience – not just for the four to eight players on stage, playing the game.” It’s often an 8-hour event so how exhibitors set up their venue to enhance that stay is important. “And there are other participants to consider; sponsors, media…these are big deals.”

For more on this exciting opportunity for exhibitors and equipment manufacturers, in a market that recent market intelligence is valuing at nearly $2 billion in revenues, 2022, please tune into the entire audio recording.

Innovations in Exhibition

panel discussion led by Mike Polydoros, President, PaperAirplane Media

Where the industry is headed, how exhibitors can provide an appealing experience in the midst of unprecedented competition for “eyeballs” and what has the pandemic changed in the industry, permanently were subjects explored in a panel led by Mike Polydoros, President, PaperAirplane Media.

Polydoros was joined by Tony Adamson, SVP, GDC Technology; Adam Cassels, VP, Global Marketing at Cinionic; Loren Nielsen, VP, Content & Strategy at Xperi Corp and Don Savant, CEO of CJ 4DPLEX.

While acknowledging that home entertainment technology appears to move faster than cinema tech, Adamson noted that emerging technologies and business models for ‘cinema on demand’ were proving to be true options for those pondering where to spend their entertainment dollars, rather than at home. Polydoros agreed, and his own feedback from exhibitor customers suggest that renting a private theatre is a huge money-maker for them and an innovation that isn’t going away.

Greater studio commitment to the cinema infrastructure is also on the rise, with Nielsen noting that Sony Pictures in Q4 2021 really committed to marketing premium experiences, witness the release of three blockbuster films in a row that lent themselves to the unique technologies that exhibitors and their tech partners could deliver. “The promotion efforts were broad, multiple and powerful,” said Nielsen, culminating in the huge success of Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Savant noted that the surge in promotion was not confined to North America, with Cineworld in Europe putting a massive effort into pre-booking tickets, starting with The Batman, and “we hope that the data [regarding PLF, Dolby Vision, IMAX and other delivery formats] will be shared with the studios by exhibitors,” to confirm that multi-layered promotion benefits all players in the cinema ecosystem.

Cassels expressed optimism that the long-standing history of cinema innovation would continue to drive the premium experience, making it “a special experience for your communities,” as Nielsen put it. “From Cinionic’s perspective, it’s a joy to work in all the areas of exhibition, across the world, we spend time – as do all of the vendors – trying to determine how we prove the value of all of the technologies we bring to bear on the experience,” said Cassels. “We’re all well known for providing good, reliable, even beautiful and hopefully stunning technology but the big win for all of will be to translate that to create longer-term value for a new generation of moviegoers.” Cassels urged industry participants to create brand strategies that explained to moviegoers why they were saying ‘wow’ and tell those [tech] stories,” whether with cross-promotions with the studios or just by providing the playbook to our many marketers in the industry.”

While agreeing wholeheartedly with the need to provide lots of contents, in different ways, as noted by Adamson, Cassels cautioned that exhibitors must be careful not to provide “too much choice, as it can overwhelm” the ticket-purchasing public. “The choices must be sufficient” but not make them feel lost, and “that’s where a balance-point must be found, and that requires us to work together, very closely” to avoid consumer confusion.

Polydoros ended by reminding the LASS exhibitors and technology vendor attendees that they have what no other entertainment options has, and that’s the communal aspects of movies, with all its inherent benefits. “A comedy is funnier, a horror story is scarier and a thriller, action movie is more intense when viewed on the big screen.”

Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF) Update

with Jerry Pierce, Chairman

The Intersociety Digital Cinema Forum update and chair Jerry Pierce’s informative and entertaining slide deck for same has become a welcome, regular occurrence at the ICTA Los Angeles sessions. The 16-year old forum meets about once a month to discuss technical and deployment issues for “theatrical digital Cinema deployment,” and as such, digital cinema technology is “our wheelhouse.” That wheelhouse has seen a lot of change over the two years of the pandemic and is poised for more, so the session covered a lot of “very technical topics” from Pierce.

Providing a resource for technical issues but also a place for people to socialize and talk to one another took on new significance for the ISDCF during the pandemic. The industry needs everyone rowing together and in that regards, he welcomed the emergence of NATO’s The Cinema Foundation (https://www.thecinemafoundation.org/) and predicted many opportunities and synergies between the ISDCF and The Cinema Foundation. As well, the zoom meetings and cocktail forums during the pandemic between the European Digital Cinema Forum (EDCF) and ISDCF worked well and further proved the benefits of socialization and communication during these uncertain times.

Warning the audience that he was going to cover 13 topics in 15 minutes, Pierce spoke to multiple subjects. One was conducting ‘plug fests’ (to gather equipment and see if it all works together) in the past, which may or may not be resurrected. Standardization is extremely critical to keep digital cinema [development and performance] on track, and Pierce acknowledged the value of SIMPTE in reviewing and standardizing ideas and concepts brought forward by ISDCF. Pierce added that “And some technical documents behind the SIMPTE paywall can be found on our site, for free.”

The site with naming conventions – a big ISDCF contribution – has been completely rewritten over the past two years to make it more easily understood, and the Digital Cinema Naming Conventions will never go away; “talk about job security and it’s awesome,” joked Pierce.

ISDCF’s work on immersive audio seems to be ending, explained Pierce, with the next step perhaps having ‘creatives’ hear the various rendering solutions arrived at, all of which play the Immersive Audio Bitstream (IAB) that studios have adopted. Pierce also announced that it appears that exhibitors could now use Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) funds to purchase equipment; a new and welcome development.

Exhibitor Roundtable: How the Pandemic Affected Business (Panel)

Joe DeMeo set the terms of the discussion

The ICTA has always had a healthy exhibitor membership, alongside cinema-tech vendors and friends of the industry, and the 2022 ICTA LASS was no exception, with representatives from a half-dozen prominent cinema-chain joining moderator and Cinionic Sales Director Joe DeMeo to recap their pandemic experiences and lessons learned.

DeMeo set the terms of the discussion, to go over “the serious business challenges we had as an industry in ramping down [our cinemas during the pandemic] but also about ramping them back up again.”

Having spent 50 years in the business, the sudden closures in March 2020 were unprecedented, “but we did our part to ‘smooth the curve’ of hospitalizations, as Dr. Fauci put it, shutting down almost instantly,” said Mark Gramz, SVP, Marcus Theatres. Gramz credited his circuit’s technicians, led by Angelo Alvarez, Director of Booth Technology, with safely shutting down and securing systems, with the assistance of vendors like Strong/MDI and specifically Beth Figge of Dolby and Mark Collins, Global Cinema at HARMAN International.

As California was “more strict” than some other states “our theatres were shutdown for more than a year,” noted Neil Pearlmutter, VP, Santa Rosa Cinemas. At Santikos Entertainment, Scott Van Doren, Director, Projection & Sound Technology, and his crew shut down the systems but periodically “exercised them,” especially projection systems, by simply showing trailer content to empty auds. More importantly, Santikos took care of its employees during the lockdowns, maintaining health benefits for almost three months, feeding furloughed employees with food from the closed theatres at one fell swoop, and checking in on them. Concern for employees paid off with most employees returning to work, and not joining the Great Resignation movement, upon re-opening.

The ramp-down at Harkins Theatres was universal, with 500-plus screens in five states shutting down at the same time, said Kirk Griffin, SVP Operations, Harkins Theatres. Starting up again was staggered, as different states had different rules. Employee-care and retention was also evident at Harkins, for though furloughs were inevitable, “with just general managers still on the payroll and some service personnel on reduced schedules,” Harkins’ very generous owner, Dan Harkins, infused cash into the business. A fund for struggling employees was also set up at this, “the largest privately-held chain in the US,” said Griffin, and as a result of the care provided, employees came back to work in droves.

Malco Theatres weathered the storm by maintaining equipment properly, running Malco’s single drive-in cinema non-stop throughout the pandemic and were able to employ all staff, save for one month prior to the September circuit-wide reopening, said Scott Barden, Regional Director, Digital Operations. “We did pretty well, all things considered,” said Barden.

One pandemic outcome is the tighter and much different recruiting environment, noted Gramz, who saw the practical and realistic minimum-wage increasing by several dollars per hour. “A GM will vet 10 applicants, call in 3 for personal interviews and only one shows up, as it’s a challenging environment with many jobs and offers out there for people chose from,” said Gramz.

Brian Claypool, EVP, Cinema at Christie, asked the exhibitors about their experience with landlords during the pandemic. Santikos’ founder had the foresight to buy all the buildings outright, but for the majority of exhibitors with landlords, the consensus was that they were reasonable in working to provide relief on lease commitments. Key was co-operation and communication, which provided for a happy outcome in most cases.

And harkening back to earlier panels on private cinemas and the emergence of cinema locations evolving to become Family Entertainment Centers, the exhibitors agreed that, while cinema remains a cornerstone, diversification to more experiences within a complex was a smart way to go.

John Fithian, NATO President/ CEO and Bob Sunshine, ICTA Executive Director, on the state of the Industry

Conversation with John Fithian and Robert Sunshine

Years of co-operation and friendship between the North American Theatre Association (NATO) and the ICTA were highlighted by Fithian and Sunshine, including attendance by John’s entire team at LASS, which drew a heartfelt “thank you for everything you do for the industry” from Sunshine. Returning the sentiments, Fithian declared that “the partnership between the ICTA and NATO has been incredibly strong for many, many years” and that the great experience that NATO and the cinema industry strive for would be “impossible without the great technologies offered by the people in this room!”

Fithian described the previous two years of pandemic life as a tough, existential’ experience, for the industry, but noted that “survive we did and the focus now has to be on where we’re going.” NATO’s primary role of representing theatre owners on issues of common concern remains, said Fithian, and that entails “lobbying governments, working with Hollywood and ‘creatives,’ partnering with vendors suppliers, and the great thing about coming out of this pandemic is that we can [all] focus on growth and the future, again.”

Rumors of a NATO initiative, The Cinema Foundation, had circulated pre-LASS and when he was queried by Sunshine, Fithian welcomed the opportunity to talk about it publicly, “for the first time.” NATO’s executive board and management came up with the idea, a 5013C charitable organization, to unite the industry in growing via several ways.”A foundation can do everything but lobbying and that will involve ICTA members, creatives, academics and with anyone who believes in growing the cinema industry, coming out of this pandemic.”

First and perhaps foremost, the Foundation can address the staffing challenges facing the industry – a massive labor crunch arising from the pandemic and influenced by the work-from-home and online-work movement, particularly favored by young people. “We need to find the data, do the research and promote why it’s ‘cool’ to work in cinema, why it’s a great place to start a career.” Echoing Tees’ opening admonition, Fithian noted that this entails “providing the training and orientation programs that can get people excited about working in cinema.” Hand-in-hand with growing the workforce is to have a more diverse workforce – e.g., greater involvement with Hispanics, African Americans, women, etc. – who “reflect the makeup of its patrons” as well as growth in the seniority and workforce of the companies of the ecosystem. “So encouraging diversity will also be one of the aims of the Foundation.”

Second, there will be an Innovation and Technology Center at The Cinema Foundation, one that partners closely with the ICTA and works closely with groups like the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF) and other professionals to talk about “the future of technology in our industry and …hopefully, establish a technology-entertainment testing center in Los Angeles.”

Noting another topic that would dominate the LASS proceedings, Fithian mused about how the testing center might help address the larger question of how to make best use of cinema space that doesn’t just mean ‘film,’ but in fact goes beyond the traditional theatrical presentation to deliver broader, family-entertainment options.

The third plank of the Foundation would be to research and promote, with data-based evidence, how best to market cinemas and lure “people out of their homes to visit the cinema again.” The fourth plank would be to foster direct working-relationships with the filmmakers – the creatives – who want their wares showing in theaters. And the fifth plank would be of a charitable nature, to help grow the industry’s existing charities, like the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, and others.

By CinemaCon 2022, where the Cinema Foundation will officially launch, Fithian hopes that $7 million will have been raised, and said it will prove to the most significant growth-initiator for the industry in decades.

Segueing to CinemaCon, Fithian reiterated that the challenging gathering of CinemaCon in August, 2021, was about getting the industry back together. On that basis, it was a success. The upcoming 2022 show at the end of April should revert to the good ole’ days, as “all the major studios are committed to attending and showing really exciting product; our domestic registration numbers are even now higher than 2019” and with the right messaging, the international registration numbers will improve as well. “Many of you (ICTA) members are stepping up with your trade-show support, which we appreciate and I think we’ll have a really, really exciting convention.”

Sunshine advanced that streaming services, in and of themselves, are not bad for theatrical exhibitions – witness the increased variety and quantity of content they fund. Fithian agreed, noting that, although theatrical window policies and models had dominated much of the past two years, the biggest challenge to cinemas vis-à-vis streaming services – of which there are too many and a consolidation of same is on the horizon – was not their availability on the small screen(s). It’s the misguided behaviours and resulting business models of some streamers. “Apple and Amazon use their streaming to sell products, not to advance the cinema industry and contribute to the theatrical experiences” that unify communities and improve life, and that’s a bad thing, said Fithian.

“We’re making a lot of progress on what the windowing strategy is” between studios and exhibitors, and although not as favorable as before the pandemic, they’re much better than what was going on during the pandemic, he added.

Re-imagining Public Entertainment Venues (or Private Cinemas)

Private Cinema Panel – Right to left – Patrick Artiaga, Steve Martz, Barry Ferrell, Mike Cummings and John Kellogg

John Kellogg, VP of Advanced Strategic Technology Solutions, Xperi Corp. moderated the first panel discussion of the February LASS, which saw Mike Cummings, Sr. Principal at TK Architects; Barry Ferrell, SVP, Cinema Product Development and Strategy, QSC; Steve Martz, VP of Global Tech at THX Ltd. and Patrick Artiaga, Sr. Business Development Director at GDC technology on how exhibitors could “get audiences in the door and keep them there” in 2022.

The panel grew out of shared discussions about where cinema was headed, during the pandemic, which focused them on what this seismic change would yield, and what a future cinema-space would look like. What could be done to bring people back, what value could be added besides movies to bring the crowds to shared public spaces, Kellogg asked. The panel’s previous video conferences saw agreement on the viability of premium large format (PLF) theatres after the pandemic, showing tentpole movies and doing well.
The key to future success relies on understanding that, although “people want a night out” and not just the home movie or streaming experience, a spectrum of entertainment experiences needed to be offered, all in a safe environment.

Warming to the topic, Cummings shared his firm’s experience in transforming several ‘medium-sized cinema spaces’ into multi-entertainment facilities. At one, “we placed 12 small cinema rooms into screening suites, and purposed them for a variety of uses, including first-run content, alternative – even streaming content – for parties, for eSports and gaming experiences, with all being, at their core, a place for shared social experiences,” said Cummings.

Martz of THX gave the panel a global feel with his experiences with and validation of private-cinema concepts as wider entertainment/social hubs found in Asia. “It’s not about the movies-it’s about having a place to spend with your friends,” said Martz. Ten years ago it began and by 2016,China had around 10,000 private-cinema rooms to the point where, pre-Covid, there were 120,000 such rooms mimicking living-room setups, with no more than 12 people max. “Government licensed and supported by the government, for movies, karaoke, sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup (soccer) make them safe and popular.” The demographics are younger, typically students, and the ‘best’ rooms have superior audio and projection technologies, “which pro-actively use and advertise popular technology brands,” noted Martz, who summarized that the marketing, segmentation and size may be something that the rest of the world’s exhibitors should be intrigued by.

Specific to audio and control requirements, Ferrell of QSC said that smaller, private cinemas could be very affordably outfitted; a lot less than what’s necessary for large-scale, PLF auditoriums, especially on the audio front. “We knew that these rooms had to generate revenue through other means than DCI, first-run movies and have multiple program materials.” The control of the room had to be of the highest quality and could be used for business meetings with Zoom or MS Teams in the morning,” mused Ferrell, “and then entertainment for the rest of the day and night.” While focusing on affordability, “it would be self-defeating to cut corners; we need to duplicate and even surpass what the attendee could get at home.”

Artiaga gave a detailed check list of audio (especially noise level), projector and display considerations for smaller, private cinemas and urged exhibitors to work closely their architects to build the functionality required for multiple uses. The proof is in the pudding and exhibitors have got very innovative said Artiaga, who showed off various global examples, including mini-theatres at Tivoli Cinema and Everyman Cinemas – Artiaga’s favorite – as well as Classic Tivoli (USA), VOX Cinemas (Dubai), WE Cinemas in Singapore, and more.

Cinema as a (Family) Entertainment Center

Left to right – Alex Younger, Bobby Franflin, Mike Cummings

Mike Cummings, Sr. Principal at TK Architects stayed onstage following the Reimaging Public Cinema session, to moderate a panel discussion featuring Bobby Franklin, President of Franklin Designs, Inc. and Alex Younger, CEO of CES+ on a growing trend in reimaging cinemas, focusing specifically on the emergence of the Entertainment Center or Family Entertainment Center (FEC), anchored by cinema offerings.

Cummings outlined the ‘why’ of the panel, which was to help exhibitors find additional revenue sources besides cinemas per se, diversifying to reduce the dependency on changes in release or content patterns so to protect “your businesses, your facilities and your future.” Diversifying the offering reaches new customers, who may not be moviegoers. It’s about providing more experiences in a social environment, some suggesting that it’s ‘competitive socializing.’

Although the possibilities are varied, Cummings grouped them into a dozen experiences, around arcade games, food and beverage experiences, eSports, bowling, cinema, civic events, active attractions and adult lounges.
To illustrate the theory of an expanded entertainment center, Franklin spoke to his firm’s commitment to building Family Entertainment Centers, in part as a partner with Movie Bowl & Grill (MBG) outlets, and went through several projects, beginning with a facility in Sherman, Texas, north of Dallas. “We decided not to build traditional theaters and instead just build MBGs, three in total to date,” said Franklin, as he envisions these branded FECs as the future of the industry.

Although the Sherman facility boasts eight auditoriums, with reclining seats and seat-side food/beverage service, it’s much more than cinema, and includes bowling – both league and individual – arcades, axe throwing, rock-climbing walls and rope courses above the arcade section. Catering keeps the kitchens busy and profitable, and when movie ‘content’ was scarce during the pandemic, the facility was a place for people – who wanted to get out and socialize in a safe environment – to do so. “It kept us alive and our employees paid” Franklin said.
Another true-life FEC example will be in Bryan Park and will be a two-level building of 87,000 sq. ft. alongside lots of green space (and a parking garage built by the municipality, who gets its use during the day, with Franklin’s group using at night, including using the sides for ads and additional movie projections). Two boutique dine-in theater spaces, including one with a roll-up screen to facilitate other, multiple uses of the space, from comedy festivals and stage plays to city meetings and events. “The city wants to bring life back to the downtown,” so are co-operating in many ways, alongside Texas A&M University for live sports broadcasts. “And of course we have brew pubs, liked by families and students alike,” joked Franklin. All in all, many ways to enable socializing, out of the home, and diversifying the revenue stream for the owners.

Alex Younger spoke to perspectives outside of North America, and spoke to facilitating family events, with rooms that include playgrounds in addition to cinemas. The space is rented to field trips from schools and local organizations, as well as family. “It’s great for the short attention spans of kids, and it comes down to something for the kids and for the parents alike.”

Cummings, referencing back to Franklin’s presentation, spoke to retrofitting traditional megaplex spaces for his clients, and introduced ‘active attractions within a building and calling it an entertainment facility, which research shows the average customer visiting five times a year. Roughly 60,000 sq. ft, it includes a full-service restaurant attraction “that can stand on its own,” as well as mini-golf, bumper car courses, ping pong, foosball and air hockey, along with bowling and bars and eSports areas. “They pay themselves back in a matter of months” maintained Cummings. “It’s all about expanding the demographics of your customer base.” These are ‘long linger games,’ which people eat and drink at, increasing revenues.

Distortion: The Elephant in the Room

Presented by John Allen, Founder/President of High Performance Stereo

Acknowledged across the cinema and entertainment industries as an accomplished audio professional and expert source, John Allen spoke to the issue of sound distortion in cinemas in the Tuesday afternoon session of the LASS 2022. After thanking the many people who assisted in creating the sound environment for the presentation, including Mark Mayfield, Global Cinema Marketing Director, QSC, and Daren McLean of DJE Sound & Lighting, specifically, Allen dove into his presentation.

Noting a recent New York Times article on a Quorum study on cinema concerns, “decreasing experiential value” (for ticket buyers) was front-and center. Allen agreed and said that improving the experience was crucial to getting people out of their homes to attend cinemas, more often. And that involved solving the often unaddressed and under-acknowledged problem of distortion, which all systems have, to some degree. To enhance the experience, “a serous sound upgrade is a good place to start,” maintained Allen.

Using three inspiring audio selections – Hello, Young Lovers from The King and I (1951), Karen Carpenter singing Yesterday Once More and the New York Philharmonic’s Performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel – Allen took ICTA attendees through the cleanest, most truthful versions first. Then he replayed the selections for the audience incorporating several different kinds of distortion, to highlight their deleterious effects on the music, and the listener.

“Understanding and minimizing distortion starts with the basic definition of ‘frequencies not in the original,’ but most people think of it as anything that diminishes the sound,” said Allen, “and I agree.” It often comes from the equipment, with amplifiers prey to all kinds of distortion – clippings, slew rates, harmonic distortion, modulation distortion, etc. – each of which Allen went through in some detail.

Returning to the audio selections, Allen pinpointed three common types of distortion – sawtooth wave, square wave, and triangle wave – as opposed to the clean sine wave. He switched selections to the distorted sine wave, noting that distorted sound seems louder, among its other faults. “And since distortion makes things sound louder than they really are, this is a real issue with theatre speakers that aren’t up to the task. Audiences notice it and complain that the sound is too loud, when it really isn’t, technically.”

Inter-modulation distortion, aka doppler distortion, or just modulation distortion, is another enemy. “A little of this stuff goes a long way to reducing [sound] clarity,” further distracting from the cinema experience and increasing listener fatigue,“ noted Allen, “and it happens no matter what kind of speaker is being used. If it moves, it distorts.”

Allen took attendees through detailed technical assessments and outcomes, citing examples from the past 20 years and ended his well-received presentation with his passionate, experience-based recommendations.

Tactically, exhibitors should commit to studying, understanding, and minimizing all forms of distortion in their venues. And processor (equipment) manufacturers should honestly assess their gear’s digital-to-analog (DAC) performance and improve as needed. Strategically, Allen asked that everyone involved in the industry “commit to total quality and take sound seriously…remember, it’s an investment in audience-building, not a minimized line item in the construction budget!”

Seventy Years of Movie Attendance

Ioan Allen, SVP, Dolby Laboratories

Ioan Allen, SVP, Dolby Laboratories, spoke to movie attendance and what is a true measure of how the cinema industry was faring prior to the pandemic. Box office dollars spring to mind of course, but a new metric for assessing success might be the number of times an individual would actually make the effort to take-in a movie. Allen’s research took into account the United States’ population over the course of the 20th century, along with data from Omdia.

With the aid of graphs and charts, Allen noted that average movie attendance per capita has been on a downward trend, and then proceeded to discuss the causes and effects of attendance. “At the end of World War II, the average American was going to the movies about 20 times a year but by the mid-sixties, attendance was down to about five times a year.” Attendance has since stayed constant, at about four times a year to 2019, and then the figures went out the window, given the pandemic of 2020-21.

The prime cause of the drop was the explosion of new content with the advent of, and adoption in force by American families, of television. Content such as the first World Series, the Ed Sullivan Show, I Love Lucy and the first-ever TV plays, live on a Sunday night; the first Olympic games on TV and Leave it to Beaver…the list goes on. “These were firsts, not ‘another,’ and drove TV sales. And you would think that major, box-office (tentpole) movies would have made a difference but they didn’t,” Allen said, citing one 12-month period that saw the first Star Trek movie, Superman, and others, but which “made little impact in terms of attendance per year,” on average. This continued up to and including Avatar.

The cinema industry fought back with technologies, saying to consumers, “hey, here’s something you haven’t got in a home” viewing environment. These included Cinerama, 70mm films, 3D and of course cinemascope, led by The Robe and available in every cinema across the country. Even the debut of new and improved audio soundtracks, led by Dolby technologies like DTS:X and Atmos, didn’t drive increased annual, average attendance.
However, Allen maintained that without these new audio – and visual technologies, including IMAX and Dolby Vision – the result would have been far worse for the industry, as “the gap between cinema presentation and home presentation would have widened.”

Taking the audience in a related but different direction, Allen spoke to and showed a new side of Alan Parker, film director (Fame, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Mississippi Burning, etc.), through Parker’s many cartoon drawings and caricatures, lampooning the film industry. Then Allen turned back to technology, and said “I don’t believe there’s a direct competition between the home and the movie theatre, and they are advancing side-by-side, with a case to be made that the same person who likes to see a movie in the home also likes to see movies in the theatres.” But technology in the home should also be seen as advancing. “TV technologies haven’t been standing still over the past 70 years,” witness black & white, to color TV; cable TV; VHS tape, DVD intro, High Definition TV (HDTV), etc., with “each of these steps, logarithmically, improving the quality of the home experience.”

Summing up, Allen rallied the troops, emphasizing that if the people in the room and the technology companies they represent had not done such a good job of improving the cinema experience, the industry would be in far worse shape, and all those articles about “the end of cinema” would have been true. They’re not, concluded Allen.

Networking and Control for the New Cinema Entertainment Center

Barry Ferrell, SVP Cinema Product Development and Strategy, QSC

Continuing the theme of diversifying revenue streams to ensure long-term success in the cinema world, Barry Ferrell SVP at QSC, updated attendees on efforts by theatre owners to find new revenue opportunities, beyond “just showing movies,” which is a reality made more urgent in a post-pandemic world. He zeroed in on the cinema networking and control technologies that can help maximize operational efficiencies and reduce costs; all of which are essential to the success of today’s ‘more than cinema’ cinema entertainment centers.

Ferrell observed that his work with QSC gave him new insights into entertainment and technology trends outside of the traditional cinema business, as the company is heavily invested in providing experiences for theme parks, stadiums, arenas, convention centres, live musical shows and other non-cinema venues.

Citing recent box office successes, Ferrell acknowledged that studios, exhibitors and ICTA members had a right to feel positive about where the industry was heading, and that it was recovering, “but we’re not out of the woods yet.” Box office returns may hit $32 billion but getting back to the pre-Covid, annual global box office returns of $42 billion probably won’t happen until 2023. So how to get back to, and grow revenues, using technology is important.
Looking at a peer organization to ICTA in the pro AV world – www.avixa.org – figures showed a peak in 2019 of $259 billion in that world, with Avixa reporting a drop in 2020, naturally. But technology is helping them recovers, with projections of more than $300 billion in 2022 not being a pipe dream. A lot of that growth will result from the evolution of AV companies into hybrid AV/IT companies, with lots of spending on IT, to drive experiential, multi-faceted entertainment.

“IT systems are becoming the backbone of the AV solutions used in the entertainment industry,” noted Ferrell. “We’re observing a combination of IT technologies – Ethernet, Linux, Intel and other chips – that are forward-thinking, and future-proofed and the processing power and networking speeds continue to accelerate.” Tying them directly to the business at hand, Ferrell laid out a vision for how these foundational technologies could be harnessed to create multi-experience, cinema entertainment centres that would draw people out of their homes, as predicted by other panelists at the LASS sessions.

“For cinema entertainment centres, there are benefits to adopting an integrated AV/IT solution that gives unprecedented cloud-based audio, video and control functionality to leverage economies of scale via even a single, as well as multiple processors, for multiple screens in your centre,” enthused Ferrell.

“What it means for cinemas is that the network-centric AT/IT solution provides for more content-and-programming options, which in turn allows you to generate more revenue.” Having a dedicated solution that can only show DCI-compliant feature films leaves cinemas too dependent on the studios and precludes other, revenue-generating, opportunities based on broader content and socializing models – such as cinema-on-demand, private rentals, streaming content, and library catalogs offering the choice of hundreds of movies and not just a half dozen held in a typical cinema multiplex. “By rethinking the cinema as ‘AV presentation venues’,” Ferrell said, “more experiences and events – including business and public meetings and presentations – can be had in traditional cinema spaces.
“Our spaces, with their great picture, great sound and comfortable seats are perfect for those uses, and let’s not forget how they enhance gaming and eSports as well,” said Ferrell. Cinema-on-demand and alternate content are also growing into huge content streams, witness the billions spent annually by Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example, and “we need to find a way, as an industry, to tap into this stream.”

Summary up, Ferrell said that the technologies out there are not going to be the challenge to realizing more content streams and revenue generation, “it’s going to be the business models.” That was the challenge that Ferrell left audience members pondering.

Release Window Patterns and their Potential Impact on Exhibition

Paul Dergarabedian, Sr. Media Analyst at Comscore.

The diverse and often confusing world of content release windows and their various permutations formed the basis of an update from Paul Dergarabedian, Sr. Media Analyst at Comscore. Throughout his presentation, replete with facts, figures, bars and graphs, Paul Dergarabedian maintained that the theatrical window in and of itself was “the best way to launch a movie,” without doubt. Citing the multi-million and in some cases billion-dollar plus results from top-grossing movies in 2021, nine of the top ten had a theatrical-first release – e.g. Spiderman: No Way Home, No Time to Die, and even
A Quiet Place Part II. Spring boarding from the movie-theatre windows, the prestige and word of mouth that this exclusive release model builds results in equally successful, follow-up rollouts on other platforms, he said.

Working with the Financial Times of London on cinema data and visualization of same, Comscore definitively proved that there was difference when it came to the success of content realized simultaneously on multiple platforms or through a cinema-exclusive release. Showing attendees multiple, powerful charts resulting from the Times and Comscore’s collaboration, Dergarabedian “said that “launching simultaneously hurts the long-term gross potential for movies, with the grosses for those beginning well but dropping off quickly, compared to those with a theatrical-first release.”

Specifically, the success of Free Guy,’ which had an exclusive, 45-day theatrical window, and opened at $28 million but kept on playing, capitalized on a big FOMO factor. Flocking to the theatrical window, consumers rewarded the film with a 4.7 times multiple on opening, earning $126 million-plus in North America and $331 million globally. “This was because it was released theatrically first and had the 45-day window,” asserted Dergarabedian. “Ryan Reynolds and that team were very happy that the decision was made” in favor of a strong window.

Dergarabedian took pains to assert that “this is not a big screen versus small screen (streamers) presentation.” But many thought that the combination of the pandemic and the emergence of streaming services would sound the death knell for the cinema industry. “If the movie theatre was going the way of the dinosaur, the pandemic would have been when it would have happened, and in fact a lot of people had counted out our business,” he observed. “Recall that the Disney+ streaming service had just come online in late 2019 as well. But for me, one helps the other.” The movie theatre exclusivity and resulting prestige helps all manner of films prosper, said Dergarabedian. Online-only lacks the gravitas and doesn’t appear to build the FOMO factor that draws out multiple audiences, time and time again.

“If it’s a movie-theatre-movie, it just adds so much more weight to it,” he said, and citing his numerous viewings of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starting several times in the theatre and then on streaming services afterwards, Dergarabedian said “It was in that movie theatre on that giant canvas – the big screen – that had the most impact with me, and that carried on.”

Synergies are emerging that disprove the adversarial tone of some pundits re: big screens versus small screens, with Dergarabedian noting that smart owners ran tentpole movies that were showing initial success “around the clock” on their screens, to meet and in a way build demand. Another differentiator to get people out of their houses and into theatres is sound, as most don’t have anywhere near the quality and sophistication of a new, properly-installed cinema sound system, he noted. “Sound is as much an [integral] part of the experience as sight [projection], and the result is that there is nothing like the movie-theater experience,” he concluded.

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