Hoyts Goes Digital for NZ’s Hamilton Cinema Complex
By Peter Parnham
Hoyts is banking on a bright future for cinema – especially in Hamilton, where construction is underway on a new six auditorium, 1300 seat all-digital cinema complex. Hamilton city, with a population of about 140,000, is located at the centre of New Zealand’s Waikato farming region.
The complex is being built by Hoyts at The Base, a rapidly expanding shopping mall located in the Te Rapa district of the city, which not so long ago was farmland.
Brian Eldridge, Hoyts New Zealand general manager, says his confidence is boosted by the success of 3D movies and alternative content made possible by digital cinemas.
“Alternative content has so many different forms and some have been more successful than others,” says Eldridge. “But sporting events, concerts, live opera and stage shows are prominent. There have also been various other sorts of alternative content, from documentaries to live satellite feeds of interviews with Hollywood stars.”
Stage shows that play in places like London’s West End are being filmed and being distributed by live or delayed broadcast.
“They’ve been going around the world on a circuit through the cinemas. People will be able to come and see a live West End play – in Te Rapa, Hamilton,” he says.
But, for Eldridge movies are always going to be the breadwinner while alternative content builds the incremental revenues.
“Ultimately cinema is always evenings and weekends. We’ve got these fantastic facilities with amazing and expensive pieces of equipment that from Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, pretty well go unutilised.”
He explains that this free time is an opportunity.
“We have the ability to put 200 lawyers in one location, and then do a live satellite feed to one of their branches in New York with another 200 lawyers.”
These days there is no question that a new site would be all-digital but for existing sites the process of conversion from film to digital is slowed by the cost.
“In this case it is not just the cost of installation of new equipment, it’s in the write-off of old equipment,” says Eldridge. “In some cases, sites have got equipment that’s meant to last for 30 to 40 years. We’re only three years in, and we’re having to take it out.”
Constructing a new purpose built venue allows for the installation of an Xtremescreen cinema. Featuring extra large screen screens from 21 to 28 metres wide, there are already a dozen Xtremescreen cinemas in Australia and two in New Zealand.
Eldridge says they are a proven business model.
“People specifically request Xtremescreen – they ask when the movie is opening and whether it will on an Xtremescreen. They are fanatical about seeing the film in the best possible light. That’s what the Xtremescreen is designed to do, it’s big, it’s very comfortable, and it’s got amazing sound.
“We make sure there are certain parameters that it has to meet in terms of the standards. People then know that they can trust that it’s an Xtremescreen and they’re going to get a good experience.
“We do charge slightly more for films that play on the Xtremescreen. That represents the fact that we put the latest and greatest of everything in there.
“The Te Rapa Xtremescreen is going to have 7.1 digital sound, probably the first in New Zealand, and we’re actually cabling it for 11.1 sound. It will always be the ultimate cinema experience.”
The equipment in Hoyts cinemas is the responsibility of Adam Wrightson, head of Hoyt’s Cinema Technology Group.
“Our role is to design, install and support all of the projection, automation and IT systems across the Hoyts circuit. Implementing technologies that enhance our customers experience inside and outside the auditorium is what we are striving for, “he says.
The Sydney-based Cinema Technology Group is a 25-strong team made up of people who run traditional IT systems, through to a dedicated team of engineers and technicians who can install, maintain and service film and digital equipment.
Wrightson says it is definitely easier to build a new digital theatre than it is to do a retrofit, partly because it is easier to incorporate services like cabling during construction, but also because projection booths can be purpose designed and optimised for digital equipment. But he adds that the design is still evolving.
“Digital cinema is still so young that I don’t think that we’ve realised its full potential in relation to affecting the actual design of the cinema,” he says. “I think in the future, there won’t be a projection room as we know it today. A traditional booth is required to house bulky 35mm equipment and have space for operators to reel up film and work in that space. They’ll evolve to plant rooms and those rooms will be considerably smaller and take up less space than a traditional projection booth today.
“We’ve achieved that to a certain extent in Te Rapa but I certainly wouldn’t suggest that it’s ultimately where it could be in the future,” he says.
“Every cinema complex is different,” says Wrightson. “While you have got to work within the constraints of the physical development, I think every cinema complex is a blank canvas for us to do something new and something bigger and something better.
“I think that we’ve proved that with Sylvia Park in Auckland, which is arguably one of the best designed cinema complexes in the world and I think we’ve now got an opportunity to do that again but on an all-digital scale.
“Every auditorium will be 3D capable and there will definitely be an Xtremescreen.”
The larger screen size of the Xtremescreen cinema was a factor that influenced the choice of projection technology.
“Large screens unquestionably pose challenges from the perspective of screening 3D content,” says Wrightson.
“From a 2D point of view, the large Christie projectors Hoyts have selected are more than adequate for lighting up our large screens.
“At the moment at Sylvia Park, it’s 21.5 metre Cinemascope 3D image. It runs 3D and 2D and it is fantastic from any seat in the auditorium. I certainly don’t see any pixels or fly screen effect. ”
The Te Rapa project will be exclusively Christie projectors based on DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology, thanks to a supply agreement signed in August this year.
“It is an exclusive 3-year agreement on projectors and lamps. It will also see that all of the projectors that we purchase from this point moving forward are all capable of being upgraded to 4K,” says Wrightson.
“We believe that the DLP 4K will deliver superior light and brightness on screen as well as bigger contrast and better colour than the alternative Sony 4K projection systems. However, I think at the moment there is very little content that showcases any benefit of the 4K platform, it is more about future proofing.
“DLP technology has been proven on many platforms and in various projector applications over more than a decade, so I feel very comfortable with that technology. Not only with its longevity, but also its superior technical qualities.”
3D Technology Choice
Screen size was also a crucial factor in the choice of 3D technology.
“The reason that we’ve selected RealD is because it is currently the only 3D technology capable of generating enough light to get on to bigger screens,” says Wrightson.
RealD systems employ polarised projection filters, polarised screens and polarised glasses.
He says other technologies are only suitable for screens up to about 14 or 15 meters depending on the projector.
“At the moment, RealD does have some limitations with vignetting once you get to some fairly short throws but it can quite adequately light up an Xtremescreen of 21 metres plus.”
Other Hoyts partners in their digital cinema strategy include an exclusive deal with Doremi for supply of playback servers and Hewlett Packard for networking and back office servers.
Art’s Alliance supplies the Theatre Management System to distribute and schedule content throughout each cinema complex and integrates with the ticketing system from New Zealand company Vista Cinema Software.
“Hoyts has is a clear strategy that we’ve been working on now for the best part of 18 months,” says Wrightson. “We’ve got locked-in supply agreements with all of our major vendors. I wanted to achieve standardisation, which has the benefit of keeping a lid on higher costs of operation associated with digital.”
Hard drive delivery
For all the abundance of new technology, at this point feature film content is still too large to deliver to cinemas across virtual private networks or other internet based connections to cinemas.
“For the time being it’s hard drives,” says Wrightson. “The only other viable solution is satellite and there are a number of players in the market who are looking to get into that space. We will be equipped to take that content electronically when the suppliers are ready.”
Compressing files into smaller sizes for network delivery does not work.
“We’ve already had a number of vendors try and compress the content,” says Wrightson. “Essentially it doesn’t compress at all because the JPEG 2000, intended for digital cinema packages, is already compressed. In fact, I see file sizes actually going in the opposite direction, particularly with the introduction of 4K and 3D.”
However live sports events already use satellite feeds.
“The Te Rapa site will be equipped with satellite receiving equipment, which is capable of receiving live broadcast content and all of the screens are equipped with capabilities to screen feature film and alternate content,” says Wrightson. “It can come in a variety of formats. The cinema standard at the moment is a pseudo standard. It’s by a company called Sensio 3D, they’re owned by IDC, who make satellite decoding boxes that we also use. We have also had some success with the side by side type of HD television broadcasts, albeit the quality of the image is not quite as good as if it’s encoded in Sensio.
“It comes down to bandwidth. You want somewhere north of 40 Mb/sec; otherwise the equipment can have some issues with some jagged edges and so on. When you blow the image up and put it on a big screen, it is harder to hide the imperfections. So that is definitely a challenge for exhibitors – to ensure and maintain a level of quality.”
Wrightson describes alternate content and live broadcast as still experimental to a certain extent.
“We had some good experiences with the FIFA World Cup and we’ve done some recent things with the AFL and the NRL finals.
“I was maybe a little bit of a sceptic, but our broadcast of the World Cup, which we received in Sensio 3D at about 40Mb/sec, yielded some very good results on screen. On the opening night, for the Australia vs. Germany game, at 4 o’clock in the morning, the auditorium was packed full of people.
“With my 3D glasses, I actually thought that I could have been looking out from a press box or a coaches box actually at the ground, looking down on to a real game of football.
“I think there is some potential there but it has to have high production values and be filmed and broadcast at the appropriate bandwidth and in the right formats that make it look its best in cinema.”
“One of the key differences about Hoyts is due to a key decision made about 18 months ago – digital cinema is about technology. It is about networks, it is about integrating what are essentially IT based systems, not just traditional cinema or traditional projection.”
This coincides with Wrightson’s assessment that 35mm prints are on the way out of the major chains.
By his reckoning they only have 2 to 3 years left.
“There will always be a market for an art house product, but from a major exhibitors prospective, if we are going to make this investment and go fully digital, then we want to encourage distributors of films to move as quickly as possible to digital only. Otherwise, the cost, not only for us, but also for them, remains higher than it needs to be.”
The Te Rapa complex is scheduled to open during 2011.
NEC Australia Puts Digital Cinema “in the Limelight”
The immense benefits of digital cinema are revolutionising the landscape of the cinema industry. The unsurpassed quality of digital technology allows movie exhibitors to provide an optimum visual experience for their patrons, while having greater versatility in theatre management and programming. Hand threading the traditional 35mm reel of film through bulky projectors and moving them between cinemas is becoming a thing of the past.
Limelight Cinema, located in the Tuggeranong Hyperdome in Canberra, has entered the digital cinema age entirely – it’s one of the first cinema complexes in Australia to have all of its movies shown by digital technology. The visual experience even extends outside the complex’s eight cinemas’ walls to its entry foyer and candy bar, making a real impact on its patrons.
Limelight Cinema has taken the digital cinema experience to another level with NEC’s advanced digital solutions.
Following on from Hoyts’ exit from the site in early 2009, Limelight Cinema filled the void and sought to totally digitalise and renovate the traditional eight cinema complex.
With the three-dimensional Avatar blockbuster hitting Australian cinemas on Boxing Day (2009), Limelight Cinema needed vendors who could transform the complex within nine weeks, a third of the time it would normally take.
The “total” digital element at the complex was going to be the core attraction selling point for Limelight Cinemas. The exhibitor needed a vendor who could deliver outstanding quality digital solutions in time for the big splash Limelight Cinema opening.
Limelight Cinema chose NEC Australia along with Australian Theatre Supplies and Digital Cinema Networks to create the new Limelight Cinema. By working together each vendor was able to deliver on its promise – to totally transform the old site into a state-of-the-art cinema within a short timeframe.
Limelight Cinema’s Manager Ross Entwistle said NEC Australia had a reputation for its digital cinema technology.
“We wanted to provide moviegoers with the best visual experience at our Limelight Cinema. NEC’s experience and reputation gave us the confidence that they could meet our requirements.
“NEC was able to tailor a package that enabled us to offer our customers a total digital experience as soon as they walked through our door.
“While NEC was able to provide us with the best DLP digital solutions, it was also NEC’s flexibility and support service which impressed us and were driving factors in our overall decision to employ them,” Entwistle said.
Limelight Cinema chose to install two of NEC’s 3D digital-cinema projectors (NC200S) for their premiere of Avatar. NEC’s NC2500S is DLP (Digital Light Projecting) cinema projector and is the World’s first DLP projector for screens up to 30m wide. Including state-of-the-art technology, it boasts precise 2K resolution and delivers high contrast images.
For the remaining six cinemas, NEC installed six of NEC’s NC1600C projectors, delivering high quality output and ease of operation. Managers can set lens position and lamp output using memory functions, and perform lamp changes easily from the back of the projector. Other features include optional touch screen control, auto lamp brightness control and compatibility with most standard film projector lamps.
Both of the NEC DLP cinema projectors enable Limelight to deliver stunning digital images regardless of screen size, while simplifying theatre management.
NEC Australia was also able to extend its digital offering to Limelight Cinema’s foyer and candy bar areas.
“As soon as our customers walk into the Limelight Cinema complex we want them to be entertained and captured by sounds and visual images,” Entwistle said.
A video wall made up of 12 of NEC’s 40” LCD Displays (LCD4020) was installed in the foyer area for movie promotions. Another six of these LCD Displays were installed above the candy bar and eight were installed facing the food court. These displays stand out allowing Limelight Cinemas to advertise its movies, food and other promotions with impact. Exceptional contrast ratios help the displays deliver amazingly vivid colours providing brighter attention grabbing displays.
An NEC NP4100W widescreen projector was also installed in the foyer area. Featuring brightness up to 5500 lumens, it was the ideal projector to roll movie trailers.
Entwistle said it was critical for the cinema to be able to resolve product issues quickly and keep projectors rolling.
“NEC’s digital projectors and LCD displays are of superior quality, are cost effective and are backed by a local NEC support team. They tick all the boxes,” he said.
Since its opening on Boxing Day in 2009, Limelight Cinema has attracted 50 per cent more patrons than the average attendance at the legacy Hoyts cinema.
Entwistle believes the incredible clarity and sharpness of the movies through NEC’s projectors, along with the Cinema’s fresh new look and low prices have been the prime attractors for customers.
“The quality of the movies shown by NEC’s projectors is outstanding. Moviegoers can see a movie in its original pristine condition; exactly the way the director intended it. So whether people are watching a movie on the opening night or weeks later, the quality of the movie will always be the same, because digital movies are immune to colour fading, scratching or dirt accumulation, which are common problems for film print.”
Entwistle says the digital cinema technology has reduced the labour and the time it takes to show movies.
“We no longer have to worry about threading the traditional 35mm reel of film print through projectors and moving them between cinemas. Digital cinema technology has simplified the process.
“NEC’s cinema digital solutions have proven to be extremely easy to operate and manage. It has assisted the business from a programming point of view, providing more flexibility for our movie session times. An advantage is that we can program movies to play in multiple cinemas at the same time,” said Entwistle.
Non-feature film content can also be shown through the digital theatre management system allowing Limelight Cinemas to utilise their cinemas in off-peak times for events such as seminars and conferences.
Entwistle said NEC’s LCD4020 LCD displays have added exceptional value to Limelight Cinemas.
“While the LCD displays have a much greater impact on our patrons than the hard copy posters, they are also more efficient from an operational point of view. Rather than physically placing paper posters in display cabinets, we can load digital files via a USB thumb drive as often as required. The technology is easy to use allowing our staff to operate the system independently.”
For more on NEC cinema projectors, click here