Digital Cinema: Theatre Circuits Climb Aboard a Fast-movin Train

"The world’s largest digital-cinema exhibitor, Carmike Cinemas of Columbus, Georgia, currently has 1,921 screens equipped in 181 locations. Carmike will celebrate its 2,000th digital installation at the Pines One theatre in Silsbee TX on Sept. 1, 2007 with screenings of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Attending the celebration will be W.S Rosser, 85, who just this year retired as manager of the historic single-screen, 410-seat theatre. Rosser, who has been an exhibitor his entire life and has managed the Pines One since its opening in 1947, is in the unique position of having seen the full transition from black-and-white to color, from carbon arcs to xenon bulbs, from changeover reels to platters, and now to satellite delivery of files that are digitally projected.

Carmike, along with their digital-cinema provider AccessIT and equipment partners Christie Digital and Doremi, has been installing systems at a rapid pace approaching 300 systems a month since beginning in January 2006. Installations slowed during the past June and July to keep as many active screens open as possible for summer titles, but resumed in mid-August, with the plan to complete all of Carmike’s approximate 2,450 screens by late fall 2007.

When Carmike began installations early in 2006, they typically decided to equip half the screens at each complex with digital, leaving the 35mm projectors in place until the supply of digital titles caught up. By early 2007, the studios were making available all major titles in the DCI format, so the pattern changed to equip all the screens at each complex with digital, leaving a only the minimum number of 35mm projectors alongside the new digital projectors to accommodate the occasional film print.

Carmike deserves credit for being the first major circuit to fully commit to digital. Dale Hurst, their director of marketing, comments, “It’s truly an exciting time for us. I’m proud to be a part of the Carmike family, as they have been so aggressive in making the change to digital.”

Rave Motion Pictures, of Dallas, Texas, is the second-largest digital exhibitor, with approximately 316 of its 427 totals screens equipped. Rave is on target to equip its entire circuit with 100% digital by Sept. 1. Rave is also partnered with AccessIT and using primarily Christie projectors with Doremi servers. Rave was also early into 3D partnering with Real D and Dolby in the fall of 2005 for Disney’s Chicken Little 3D launch. Currently, Rave has at least one 3D system at each of its 27 complexes and plans to continue adding 3D capability as more content becomes available.

Rave charges the same ticket price for its digital screenings as its 35mm film but has added a small premium to the 3D ticket prices. Jeremy Devine, Rave’s VP of marketing, observes, “The public is just now becoming aware of digital picture, and Rave is working with its partners at DLP Cinema, AccessIT and Real D to build the brands that will drive the audience to seek out a digital presentation.”

AccessIT, which was instrumental in the Carmike and Rave conversions, has also developed relationships with a number of regional exhibitors who have made substantial commitments to digital. AccessIT’s exhibitor partners also include Celebration! Cinemas with 129 screens equipped, digital-cinema pioneer UltraStar Cinemas with its entire 102-screen circuit equipped in early 2006, Galaxy Theatres with its 67 screens equipped, and Emagine Entertainment with 46 screens equipped.

National Amusements (NA) is in the final stages of installing 120 of Technicolor’s 2K digital projection systems at 14 locations. NA had previously installed 44 systems using Real D 3D projection systems in 44 locations on 45 screens, bringing them to a total of 164 digital screens. Following the completion of the pilot testing program with TDC, negotiations will get underway to establish a workable business model for full rollout of digital projection systems. The experience gained through the pilot program will determine National Amusements’ next steps forward.

Recently, NA signed an agreement with National CineMedia LLC to join their Cinecast Network, the largest digital in-theatre live network in North America. This pact allows them to expand their existing alternative programming, such as simulcasts of concerts, children’s programming and other unique concepts.

Bill Towey, senior VP, operations, comments, “Digital technology has already provided National Amusements with some powerful entertainment programs and contributed to increased attendance at our theatres. We were one of the first theatre companies to offer alternative content via digital projection systems. In 2002, with the Broadway Theater Network, we showed the play Jekyll & Hyde. We were also the first theatre circuit to feature live, high-definition sports broadcasting. Patrons have given us very positive feedback about the clearness and crispness of digital. Families are pleased because it provides us with the way to deliver Kidtoon Films, which is a family event on Saturday and Sunday mornings offering a new, original G-rated animated movie every month. Digital also is a more effective and efficient way for our theatres to offer businesses who rent our theatre locations for company events interconnected audio/video presentations and meetings between locations.”

In additional to National Amusements, TDC has also deployed 27 screens with Wehrenberg Theatres and 22 screens with Zyacorp Entertainment, and is also deploying systems in premier locations for Mann Cineams and ArcLight Cinemas.

AMC Entertainment Inc., Cinemark USA Inc. and Regal Entertainment are all early pioneers in digital cinema. AMC began initially equipping selected screens as early as 2000 with 1.3K projectors and now has expanded to 115 equipped screens with full 2K DCI-capable systems. Similarly, Regal Cinemas began early with selected deployments and has recently expanded to 123 digital screens, most of which are 3D-enabled using the Real D technology. Cinemark has approximately 33 screens equipped also with Real D 3D systems.

In the spring of 2005, these three circuits joined together to launch National CineMedia, LLC (NCM), charged with developing a digital pre-show network and exploring a unified approach to the mainstream theatrical digital conversion. The three companies represent a total of over 14,000 screens. In March 2007, NCM, along with the three parent exhibitors, created a separate legal entity, Digital Cinema Implementation Partners LLC (DCIP), to further develop the strategy and specific plans for playback of theatrical titles.

According to Travis Reid, CEO, DCIP is in the final stages of finalizing studio and vendor arrangements. DCIP hopes to be in the a position to start offering their deployment packages in the first quarter of 2008 and, because of the large number of screens involved, looks to a three- to four-year rollout process. With a primary focus on the needs of their primary owners, DCIP also intends to open up its deployment plan to other exhibitors.

NCM will continue to handle pre-show and alternative programming using its own infrastructure and equipment. DCIP plans to be vendor-agnostic by offering exhibitors a choice of DCI-specified equipment. According to Reid, their primary concern is maximizing the interoperability and minimizing the amount of complexity in the systems from an operations standpoint. “Scale is the significant benefit DCIP brings to the table, in terms of purchasing power as well as spreading the development costs across a larger number of systems.”

DCIP’s current and initial focus is on the U.S. domestic market, but it is eyeing Latin America as its first international priority due to its parent partners’ interests in Mexico and South America.

The Cinema Buying Group (CBG) is an independent association of North American exhibitors who have come together to increase their purchasing power of digital equipment. CBG member organizations currently represent in excess of 4,000 screens, and will likely continue to grow in the coming months. According to Wayne Anderson, its president, CPG has recently issued a Request for Proposal to all known third-party systems integrators for between 4,000 to 6,000 digital systems. The RFP includes DCI-specified projectors, servers, theatre-management software, system integration, installation and support. The CBG is expecting the third-party integrators who respond to negotiate with equipment manufacturers and service providers, as well as incorporate any available studio incentives into the contract system pricing. The CBG member companies will be able to specify to the contracted third-party integrator their individual requirements for specific vendor and model preferences. The integrators receiving the RFP are expected to respond by mid-September 2007, whereupon the CBG member companies will evaluate the proposals and make a decision this fall. Once the CBG purchase contract is in place, the CBG will not be accepting additional members.

The first wave of the North American digital conversion is underway, with over 3,500 screens already converted. Pioneering exhibitors like Carmike, Rave, National Amusements, UltraStar and many others, working with integrators like AccessIT and Technicolor Digital Cinema, have led the way. The second wave of installations is already on the horizon, with the CBG’s potential of 6,000 screens together with the DCIP representing a potential of up to 14,000 screens, all planning initial deployments in early 2008."

By Bill Mead, Film Journal International