All Digital, All the Time

This ShoWest 2008 marks approximately two years since the first serious rollout of DCI-capable digital-cinema systems in the U.S. Enough time has passed for us to look back at a few of the deployments to see what issues have been raised, how they have been resolved and, in general, how exhibitors are using the systems. We talked to a number of exhibitors and system integrators who have installed “all-digital” multiplexes and have come up with several views on how their deployments are going.

UltraStar Cinemas of Carlsbad, CA, made an early jump into digital in the fall of 2005 with the commitment to equip their entire 114 screens with digital projection through the AccessIT/Christie deployment plan. John Ellison, co-founder of UltraStar, has been a proponent of digital since 2002 when he was the first in California to install six 1.3K pre-DCI Boeing Digital Cinema systems for Star Wars: Episode I.

Ellison, a true believer in the power of marketing cinema amenities, was the first in the area to use THX certification and saw digital cinema as the next high-value attraction. As a result, in 2001 UltraStar developed their own “Pure Digital Cinema” marketing campaign to increase audience awareness. With the 2002 Star Wars release, Ellison found that his cinemas that were equipped and marketed as digital were earning up to twice the box office of his 35mm houses. Focused on maximizing his investment, and with marketing support from DLP Cinema and equipment vendors, Ellison was able to create a premium attraction that continues to pay off.

UltraStar completed its digital installations in all its screens in early 2006, but still has a few side-by-side film projectors for the occasional title not available in digital, but this is becoming rare. Ellison says, “In 2007, only two or three titles were not available to us in digital.” UltraStar has also added 3D and has six locations equipped with the Real D system. Looking back, Ellison declares, “I could not be more pleased with the way things have turned out. The AccessIT and Christie people have been excellent in making sure our transition to digital has been as smooth and painless as possible.”

Premiere Theaters, an independent ten-screen multiplex in Melbourne, FL, has also completely converted to digital. Getting started by converting a single screen to digital 3D with Disney's Chicken Little in the fall of 2005, Premiere's president Rob Kurrus quickly realized that he needed to transition the multiplex to fully digital as quickly as possible. Kurrus says, "It's all about enhancing the customer experience and we saw that digital, with its higher quality and flexibility, was the way to go."

After researching the various plans being offered, Kurrus selected the Dolby plan and their servers along with Barco projectors. Over a six-month period in mid-2006, Kurrus added digital systems until all his screens were equipped. Along with the original Real D 3D system, Kurrus has also recently added two Dolby 3D systems. "In hindsight, we probably left too many 35mm projectors in place, as we've found we really don't need them. Based on our experience, you only need 35mm in a few—at the most one-third—of the screens," Kurrus notes.

Kurrus admits the transition was not without its issues, particularly when he only had a few digital screens and had to move shows between auditoriums. During the transition, there were times when box-office revenues suffered because Premiere was not able to keep some popular titles in digital throughout the run. "There was a collective sigh of relief from the staff as the last Barco projector was installed," Kurrus recalls. "We have had virtually no problems getting our staff to understand the operation of the systems, as most our staff are fairly technically savvy. In fact, if anything, operating the 35mm projectors is a bigger challenge.”

Delivery of the security keys seemed to be an ongoing issue during the transition, but this smoothed out after a few months. An occasional problem still pops up. Most studios are still figuring out how to store and distribute digital content for repertoire titles. For example, after the digital run of one popular title, Premiere needed to bring back the title for a special-event showing. Although they still had the original digital file on the server, for some unknown reason the distributor could not reissue a valid key and had to send in a 35mm print for their event.

Rob Kurrus also feels a breakthrough in the simplification of their day-to-day screen operation came after Premiere installed the Dolby Library Server. Previously, titles had to be loaded into the individual players at each screen. The library server provides a single point for loading the titles used throughout the site. Shows can be scheduled, titles can be moved between screens, and the entire system monitored from a central point, or even remotely using a web browser.

Kurrus feels the remaining issues to be worked out are in the area of content and key delivery, and is looking forward to the day when all content arrives via satellite delivery and the keys are transparently loaded. He predicts, "Then the only reason to go into the booth will be to change the bulb.” Kurrus goes on to add, "The xenon bulb is the weakest link in the digital system. I would like to see some improvements there."

Megaplex Theatre of Sandy, UT, has converted 53 of its 69 screens at five sites to digital, with all digital projectors at its Gateway, Thanksgiving Point and Jordan Commons sites. Being in the Salt Lake City area, home of the Sundance Film Festival, Megaplex’s digital-cinema specialist Mike Renlund found that there is still a need for some 35mm equipment to accommodate titles from independent filmmakers, and he has converted several auditoriums to run both film and digital. Also, because of decreasing costs in mastering digital content, more and more independent filmmakers are making the switch to digital.

Renlund is pleased with the digital equipment and feels that most of the earlier transitional issues have been ironed out. “There were occasional problems in getting the right security keys,” Renlund notes. “Since we have both the Dolby 3D and Real D 3D systems, we initially had a few issues getting the right 3D files. Now that the distributors are supplying keys to all auditoriums, for the most part this seems to have been resolved.”

Megaplex has been aggressively using their new digital capability to attract new audiences by hosting business events, concerts and video-gaming events. For example, in conjunction with the Hannah Montana 3D release, Megaplex hosted a separate dress-up “Red Carpet Rock Star Event,” with a separate $15 ticket, that used the digital projectors to present live karaoke. Also, Megaplex has been using the digital auditoriums after hours to host X-Box Halo contests, according to Dave Bollard, Megaplex’s marketing manager. Megaplex has been able to fill auditoriums between midnight and 6 a.m. with teams competing between screens.

Malco Theaters of Memphis TN, also another early pioneer going back to the 2002 Star Wars deployment, has jumped into digital cinema in a big way. Partnered with Dolby as the system provider and server manufacturer, and with Barco projectors, Malco has approximately 60 digital systems installed of its expected 350-screen deployment. Mike Thomson, Malco’s VP of operations and technology, has been their driving force in making sure that each system is installed to deliver the best possible picture and sound.

Malco started by installing the new digital systems in its best-performing houses and intends to continue the upgrades at a manageable pace until all their screens are equipped. Thomson has developed an in-house technical staff of six who have been extensively trained by the manufactures in maintenance and operation of their equipment. Thomson admits that “digital is not as mature as film and still has a way to go. It’s not a cakewalk. However, we have a good operational record and have been able to deal with and learn from the issues as they come up.”

Malco has installed a few Dolby Digital 3D systems, and is impressed with the image quality of Dolby’s 3D process. Thomson likes the Dolby 3D system because of its conventional white screen and he feels their 3D image quality is the best in the market.

Thomson believes Malco’s success with digital is largely due to the strong relationships he has built with Dolby, Barco and other vendors and the investments made by Malco in developing the in-house staff to deal with installations, routine maintenance, and any unexpected issues. Thomson believes that the smaller exhibitors need to be prepared by either building up a strong in-house team, or working with service providers that can deliver the required support.

Rave Motion Pictures of Dallas, TX, has gone 100% digital in its 445 screens, with 37 equipped with Real D 3D. Rave partnered with AccessIT, using Christie projectors and Doremi servers in its digital rollout. At this point, Rave does not have any 35mm equipment and feels quite confident that there is enough mainstream content to support their exclusive “everything in digital” position.

Rave has also been an early adopter of 3D, with at least one Real D 3D installation in every complex. Of the 683 Hannah Montana play sites, Rave was able to capture almost five percent of the opening-weekend total box-office gross with its 28 3D screens. Jeremy Devine, VP of marketing, attributes the increase to an “intensive grassroots marketing campaign,” along with Disney’s phenomenal pre-release marketing to increase awareness of digital 3D. Devine has also been “shocked” by how successful the opera events have been, and is also experimenting with sporting events and other forms of alternative content. Rave has been attentive to scheduling the special events for afternoons and the relatively weak Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Overall, the success of Hannah Montana and other alternative content has affirmed Rave’s decision to be at the forefront of the digital and 3D rollout.

Brad Wardlow, Rave’s VP of operations, comments, “Rave made the digital transition over an 18-month period beginning in early 2005. We equipped in several ‘waves,’ initially starting with the higher-performing screens where we had booked the titles that we knew would be available in digital. By mid-2006, almost every title we were playing was available in the DCI format, so we decided to go ahead and replace the 35mm projectors on a site-wide basis. Having the building fully digital simplifies operation tremendously when compared to a split 35mm-digital site.

“We have certainly changed our staffing interview process since going digital,” Wardlow continues. “Previously, we would look for candidates that showed an aptitude for mechanical skills. Now, we focus on those that have an interest in computers and are familiar with software and menu-driven systems.” The next step in Rave’s digital implementation will be to integrate it with the box-office point-of-sale system, so there will be no need for manual show starts. This will eventually reduce staffing costs. Wardlow feels that while the digital projector’s operating costs may be higher than the conventional 35mm projector, the overall savings on a circuit-wide basis will be in the positive, after taking into consideration the savings in theatre operations.

In conclusion, all the exhibitors we spoke to were enthusiastic about their digital systems. All admitted they had been through a somewhat challenging learning process, but all said they had overcome any serious show-stopping issues, and felt they were delivering superior presentations. Common to all was the tremendous popularity of digital 3D, and all had developed innovative uses of alternative programming to raise attendance in off-hours. And finally, all seemed to emphasize the need to be prepared with either a well-trained in-house technical team or have a capable systems integrator working closely with them during the transition period."

By Bill Mead, Film Journal International