Revolution will be digitized

D-cinema dares theater owners to reinvent their businesses

At a recent digital cinema event in Hollywood, a speaker joked that it was no accident exhibs had dubbed nonfeature content “Other Digital Stuff.”

That’s O-D-S for short. Pronounced odious.

The line was meant as a joke, but many exhibs act like that’s what they think.

The refrain from theater chains has been “It’s the films that matter” — just what one might expect from an industry that has spent 100 years learning to show movies, sell popcorn and not much else.

D-cinema will make movie exhibition better and more flexible, but “digital cinema is a different business model,” says Larry Jacobson, prexy of cinema server supplier QuVis. “The digital cinema process doesn’t commence until the conversion’s complete.

“Today, you still have film theaters, and you have digital projectors in film theaters. That’s not really digital cinema.”

The ability to screen live television, concerts, sports and more is just the beginning of the changes d-cinema can bring.

Jacobson points to things as basic as the design of theater complexes. “Theaters are lined up like ducks in a row, to accommodate a mezzanine that has film projectors lined up like ducks in a row.”

That is likely to change once d-cinema is in place, he says, driven in part by the opportunity to program different events.

“When it’s time to add other revenue-generating businesses into that space, they’re going to have some difficulties.

That’s when you’re going to see the design change.”

Hardware suppliers like Jacobson are unabashed supporters of d-cinema, but even they say d-cinema won’t justify the transition costs if it’s used only as a fancier version of film projectors.

Beyond digital’s advantages in exhibition, a theater with a digital projector can generate revenue in more ways, at more hours, than would have been imaginable with film.

Southern California’s UltraStar chain has installed digital projectors side by side with film projectors in all of its theaters. John Ellison, UltraStar’s co-owner and chief operating officer says the chain has had a very good response to its ODS, especially at times that aren’t a traditional moneymaker for theater chains.

“We’ve had a lot of different things that we’ve done with it, ranging from using our theaters for business conferences and having satellite distribution from the main headquarters in New York feeding in. That’s supposedly gaining in popularity.”

On the entertainment side, says Ellison, digital has let UltraStar program concerts, sporting events and even live TV.

“The Academy Awards, ‘American Idol,’ things like that where people just go crazy seeing it on the large screen,” says Ellison. “I think our biggest challenge to date is letting people know what a unique experience it is. The more people see it, the more they look forward to seeing it again.”

These events are often longer than movies, sell more concessions and can even generate alcohol sales, although that requires a caterer with a liquor license.

UltraStar has learned that to make those ODS events work, it will be necessary to set aside one screen in a multiplex to show them on an ongoing basis. “We may not have something every night,” says Ellison, “but we’ll have it three or four times a week, and we’ll have a theater dedicated to it so you don’t interfere with your regular run of movies.”

UltraStar and other loops with d-cinema systems are getting hints that music may turn out to be digital’s surprise “killer app.” Concerts are a particular draw, in part because there’s no way even the best home theater speakers can match a state-of-the-art theater sound system.

One idea attracting attention is the Cine-Lounge concept, which envisions a single after-hours ticket to a multiplex showing comedy, music, anime or other programming on various screens. Patrons can wander from house to house or hang out in the lobby.

Robert Martin, president and chairman of the Cinema Advertising Council, thinks it’s an idea worth exploring, especially if aimed at teens.

Martin doubts ODS events, whatever they are, will be enough to lure auds on traditionally dead Tuesday nights: “There’s already an event at a theater — it’s called a movie. People aren’t there because they don’t want to be there.

“The first (to) come out of the chute with a business model that actually makes sense will make it a lot easier for the followers.”