Christie/AIX reels in major exhib deal

Christie/AIX has landed the first contract with a major exhibitor for digital-cinema deployment.

The joint venture between Christie and AccessIT has signed a deal to turn all of Carmike Cinemas’ approximately 2,300 screens digital in the next two years.

It’s a different approach for Carmike than that taken by AMC, Cinemark and Regal. Those three major exhibs formed a company called National CineMedia that will develop a d-cinema plan for their combined 11,000 screens.

Carmike has instead signed a 10-year contract for Christie/AIX to oversee the deployment, which will include software from AccessIT and projectors by Christie as well as regular service.

“In the beginning we looked at doing this ourselves,” Carmike CEO Michael Patrick admitted. “But only one player has the infrastructure to provide all the service this will need and is ready to roll it out now.”

Carmike operates primarily in small- and midsized markets. Patrick said the primary benefit of installing d-cinema will be access to more films. Currently, Carmike gets only about half of Hollywood releases since the economics of shipping prints for the exhib’s relatively small auds don’t work.

The cost of transmitting digital prints to theaters is very small, which will allow Carmike to more easily cycle films in and out.

In addition, digital screens will be able to use 3-D technology first tested on “Chicken Little” and get special nonfilm content like sports and religious events.

Carmike said it won’t raise prices on digital screens.

Christie/AIX hopes to get 300 d-cinema systems into Carmike theaters by March 31 and 1,150, or about half the total rollout, by the end of 2006.

Company was previously aiming to deploy 4,000 screens by the end of 2007. Thanks in part to the deal with Carmike, it’s now aiming for 10,000 by 2010. That would rep over one-quarter of all domestic screens.

AccessIT topper Bud Mayo said future deployments will focus primarily on smaller and regional circuits, since three of the other biggies have already joined together for National CineMedia.

Christie/AIX has already started a small pilot deployment on 150 screens.

While deployment of d-cinema projectors and servers starts immediately, Christie/AIX will have to update them with software in the middle of next year to be fully compliant with antipiracy and quality standards set by Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture of the major studios, in August.

The other competitor for d-cinema deployment is Technicolor, which has signed deals with most major studios and is still lining up exhibs.

Christie/AIX already has content commitments from Disney, Fox, Universal, Sony and DreamWorks. Others are in negotiations.

With those studios lined up and its first major exhib partnership, Christie/AIX should be in a stronger position to raise the hundreds of millions it will need to buy all of the equipment it requires. Seeking to increase its cash on hand, AccessIT is already filing for a shelf registration for additional stock that will be used for Christie/AIX.

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