With Help From Sony, Theater Chain Looks to Beat the Competition by Screening Alternative Content

Large companies like Sony that attempt to straddle multiple markets and business models are often criticized as corporate Frankenstein's monsters – struggling against myriad complications to bring interests in content, professional gear, and consumer products into alignment. That tendency makes the deal recently announced between Sony and Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based movie-theater chain Muvico Entertainment – which has installed 4K SXRD projectors on all 18 screens in a new suburban Chicago location, bringing Sony's installed base of 4K projectors close to 40 – more intriguing. Muvico isn't just buying projection from Sony; it's offering PlayStation gaming in a "Teen Cafe" where kids can hang out before or after shows, and VAIO computers in a children's playroom. Meanwhile, Muvico intends to secure alternative programming for its digital screenings in part by working with artists signed to Sony Music labels. F&V spoke to Andrew Stucker, director of Sony's digital cinema systems group, about 4K projection technology, and to Michael Whalen, President and CEO of Muvico, about their hopes for making the investment pay off.
Andrew Stucker, Director, Sony Digital Cinema Systems
F&V: The rollout of 4K projection technology hasn’t happened as quickly as Sony might have hoped.
ANDREW STUCKER: Actually, it’s more a case of it not going as quickly as the market had hoped. We're glad that we are as far along as we are. We got a very late start in this business relative to our competition. The development time has actually been very fast. Now that we are at a level where we can say with confidence, “We have functional systems that are designed to DCI compliance,” the wheels start spinning quickly. The market has decided distinctly that 2008 is the year – the number of units installed will triple, maybe even quadruple what went out in 2007, when there were maybe 2500 systems installed. So everyone is anxious to see competitive systems become available in 2008.

And the Muvico deal represents the beginning of that?
Yes, the timing for Muvico’s initial jump into digital cinema is terrific for us. It matches the delivery of our second-generation systems, the SRX-R220 [18,000 lumens] and the SRX-R210 [10,000 lumens], which were specifically designed for theatrical exhibition. And it lets us assure the industry that we are ready to go.

There's some concern in the industry that, when Sony suddenly shows up on the digital cinema scene pushing the idea of 4K projection when everything that's already installed is 2K, it just causes hesitancy on the part of theater owners.
We wouldn’t have made a 4K projector if DCI hadn’t put it in the specification. It was really the studios who first pushed the idea of 4K. Our late entry relative to our competition made some people say, “Sony’s trying to play the spoiler.” That's not the case. We believe 4K is the way to go. When we looked at the marketplace, the fact that billions of dollars would be spent on the technology changeover, and the rationale for theater owners and studios to make this investment, on the top of the list was making a distinction between the home and the theatrical experience. There’s nothing wrong with 2K, but it’s about 200,000 pixels more than what people get in their homes [2048×1080 for 2K versus 1920×1080 for 1080p HD; 4K is 4096×2160 pixels]. We did not think that provided enough of a visual distinction for people to get off their couches and drive to their local theaters.

Anyone who’s been to seminars or conferences on digital cinema has probably heard the argument that, based on the ability of human vision to resolve a certain amount of information on a movie screen, most members of the audience won’t be able to see the extra resolution from 2K to 4K.
They’re half right. If you sit in the back of the auditorium, you’re not going to see a difference between 4K and 2K. If you sit halfway into the theater – you're going to see a decided difference the closer you get to the screen. With more and more stadium seating being employed, people are sitting closer to screens than they ever have before. There can be a breathtaking difference between 2K and 4K. Part of that experience is the original production format. If you’ve ever seen a 65mm-produced movie, or even a 35mm ‘scope movie like Batman Begins, projected in 4K, you know there’s a distinction. It’s visually phenomenal. And we’re getting closer to 4K-originated movies. Soderbergh has actually started production on the first of two movies that he will capture in 4K with the Red One digital-cinema camera. To take 4K-originated imagery and project it in 4K, that’s the end of the argument. And that’s the type of content that theater owners will start getting in the next 12 to 18 months. We’re as closely partnered with Dalsa Digital Cinema and Red Digital Cinema as possible, supporting their presentations and development efforts to get people using 4K cameras.

Another question that comes up is how marketable is 4K? Can you do what theaters used to do, which is say, “We’re showing Star Wars in 70mm with six-track Dolby surround” to get people to come downtown to a 4K-equipped theater?
Certainly, this is new rhetoric in the consumer lexicon. But there are ways to help the consumer understand that if he goes to one theater, he will see a better image than he will at another theater, and we believe the theater owners will take advantage of that.

Is 4K really the sweet spot in the kind of theaters we have worldwide today? Because if I’m a theater owner, I’m already wondering what happens three or four years down the line if 6K or 8K becomes the new high-end standard.
4K is the sweet spot in terms of the human eye. There’s a limit to what a human being can see, and 4K is at the high end of that limit. There was a prototype 8K system at NAB last year. There’s no question that they can be built. The question is, for what? If you build something and no one can appreciate the difference, who would buy it?

There’s also a limit to how much information you can get off a film negative, and there are limitations in the post process.
There is an economic issue, and that’s part of the content side of the 4K question. A 4K DI process is still more expensive than the 2K process. Every one of the studios has said “We would love to do 4K – as soon as the cost of the DI becomes more reasonable.” That’s something Sony is already working on, bringing 4K technology to that part of the workflow.

Can you tell me more about that?
Our development process always focused first on the theatrical projection system. Next is the DI system, and when we take care of that we will pursue our own 4K camera. In terms of the DI system itself, we’re taking the Cell workstation, a hyperspeed engine developed for PlayStation 3, and targeting the deployment of that into the 4K DI process, so you have 4K rendering in real time. Right now, 4K rendering takes close to forever. We believe we can create functional 4K DI processes based on the Cell workstation that will speed things up considerably and therefore lower the cost of DI and encourage more 4K content.

Michael Whalen, President and CEO, Muvico Entertainment
F&V: What really spurred you to invest in 4K projection?
MICHAEL WHALEN: In the exhibition business, there are some macrocompetitive threats – narrowing DVD windows, home-entertainment systems with HDTV and 1080p projectors at home. We’re thinking about integrated entertainment experiences: what can we do to get someone at home to come out to one of our complexes? You won’t hear me say “going to the movies.” You’ll hear me say “going to the entertainment complex.” We see the business transforming into more than just movies. Our motto in Chicago is, “Come for the food; stay for the movie.” We have a great relationship with Levy Restaurant Group to manage all the food in Chicago.

I have to tell you, I have been pitched by Access IT, Technicolor and Kodak. I’ve seen them all in theater settings and test labs. I really don’t think a consumer sees a difference in 35mm vs. 2K digital. If you look at an older 35mm print that’s been on the reel a couple of weeks, maybe there’s a difference. But if I look at a 4K picture, I can tell there’s a difference, and I think a consumer will see that difference, so I think there’s a competitive marketing advantage to a 4K projector that a 2K projector does not have.

But the biggest thing the Sony projectors bring – why the whole complex is 4K digital – is alternative content. Our theater in Boca Raton, FL, hosted the Academy Awards [via satellite] very successfully. The idea of having alternative content – things like sporting events, broadcasting a Broadway show into Chicago, hosting the last five races of the NASCAR Nextel Challenge Cup, or a live event with a Sony artist being released on DVD and CD – means Sony is more to us than just an electronics company. They can program many facets of entertainment. And we will do alternative content in Chicago over the next couple of months that has not been seen before in the digital exhibition business. Sony is spearheading an alternative-content group to look at those opportunities.

Is that extended relationship with different Sony groups formally codified in the projector deal?
The deal started with just the projectors. Sony wanted to use [our complex in] Chicago to showcase the differential and roll out 4K projectors. And then we said, "Well, what about the PlayStation people? Can we talk to them?" And Sony said, "Yeah, here’s the PlayStation people." And we said, "How about the Sony Music people?" And then we said, "Well, what about the VAIO people?"

Is the 4K advantage something you see specifically advertising? And if so, how do you approach that with your customers? Do you even call it "4K"?
We ran it around the table. Should we call it "high-definition?" Is it "SuperSonic Digital?" All sorts of weird things. When you see the policy trailer in front, Sony has done a great job of showing people, in a quick 15 or 20 seconds, what 4K is, educating them that it’s a much different experience than anything that’s been done before. We also have greeters in our theaters. Most times, you’ll have someone stand up in the theater and say, “Welcome to Muvico. Enjoy the show.” We will put something in there saying, “You’re going to be experiencing the latest high-definition, 4K technology.” Even in a word-of-mouth process, there will be education. We’re looking to market it and market it very hard.

When do you expect to see content coming in at 4K rather than 2K?
I think you’ll start to see some next year. Like anything else in this business, it takes time. Digital technology reshapes industries. This industry has been the same for many years. It's a complete commodity – the same 35mm, the same sort of seats, the same product on the screen. People in this business have never spent marketing dollars. If you ask any exhibitor how many marketing dollars he spends besides co-op advertising, it’s very small. You very rarely market. That world is going to change, and it’s going to become a marketing game. I have different food specials, I have different programming, and I have a better picture than you. If we can prove there are distinct advantages, the guy down the block is going to want the same projection equipment we have. And once that happens, product will actually flow in 4K.

And obviously cameras are coming online that can shoot 4K and will open up the possibilities content-wise.
Yes, and speaking of alternative content, the last Holy Grail here is 3D. Two of our theaters will have Real D 3D in them. Beowulf is coming out in November, and also the U2 concert in 3D. I’ve seen it. It’s awesome. Unbelievable stuff – to watch a U2 concert in a theater like ours, and have a beer and an appetizer? The experience is totally transcendent, and that’s the goal. The projection and ability of 4K plays a very critical role in that. People will get it. It’s not rocket science – it’s just common sense.