Odeon on the future of cinema

Tim Kridel discusses the future of cinema with Mike Bradbury, head of cinema technology, and Simon Soffe, head of communications at Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group. Odeon is the largest cinema chain in the United Kingdom by market share, and has 124 cinemas in UK and Ireland.

TK: What are some major trends in the cinema market, and how do those trends affect the AV needs of theatres? For example, Odeon is among the operators that rents out its theaters for corporate events and other non-movie activities. So if a theatre will be hosting more than just films, does it require different or additional types of projection, loudspeakers and other AV systems?

We're doing a lot of work to fulfil our desire to give every guest an inspiring experience every time they visit our cinemas. 2015 was a great year with some phenomenal films and other amazing content that guests enjoyed in our theatres. Last year millions of guests enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Spectre, Jurassic World and Fifty Shades of Grey in our 243 cinemas across Europe. All of our 2,243 screens use digital projectors married to very decent sound systems, along with comfortable seats in the auditorium and a fantastic hospitality experience.

Last year broke records - more than 751,000 of our guests pre-booked tickets to Star Wars: The Force Awakens before it even opened - and we opened most of our cinemas at midnight to make sure our guests could enjoy it at the earliest possible second!

ODEON has been entertaining guests in the UK for 85 years, so we have a lot of technical and hospitality expertise. And it stretches way beyond showing films. We've extended our offer to include transmissions of live theatre, opera and all sorts of other music concerts - as well as hosting a huge number of private corporate events each year. Over the last two years we've shown guests across Europe live feeds of a huge range of "alternative content" including Take That concerts, Ed Sheeran performing live from our cinema in Leicester Square, NBA Live Basketball games, and Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, live from the Barbican theatre in London.  All of our cinemas have satellite receivers, allowing us to screen performances from around the world - and our guests enjoy the full big screen entertainment for their favourite shows. The cost saving is huge as it saves guests travelling to and staying in London or around Europe - so we see a lot of very happy guests!

For live shows and corporate events, we don't need special projectors, as we can plug pretty much anything into our digital projectors and get full resolution. Sometimes we may need a scaler to resize some resolutions, but this isn't that common anymore given that most people do everything in HD.

With corporate events and private presentations, we find running fixed installed data cables from the screen end to the projection room beneficial as it alleviates running them for events. We also try and accommodate enough adapters to fit most laptops etc for presentations.

Sound can usually be fed through our sound systems by inputting into the auxiliary inputs and can easily get 5.1 if needed, but most presentations are 2.0 stereo. To avoid feedback from the screen speakers we usually hire in mic speakers or route the sound through the surround speakers only.

With private presentations, hiss can be an issue so we use grounded cables like XLR with a mixing desk. Most of our auditoriums have wifi now, not for people to use during the film, but for internet access for private presentations. Or we consider routing a feed for a hard wired cable for reliability.

We can make most things come to life in massive scale on the big screen now as all projectors have DVI or HDMI inputs and we can do live shows, gaming, internet, You-Tube - whatever our guests want. We can even make them 3D by utilising the Real-D pods to convert the images.

In Europe - particularly Germany - we're seeing an increasing number of guests renting screens for private use so they can plug in their Xbox One or PS4 for an awesome multiplayer session. The quality of the experience really is superb - and we think this and other uses for cinemas will expand in the next few years as people realise everything that we can do.

TK: Even average home theaters now often include advanced technologies such as 4K and 3D. What are theatre operators looking for in terms of technologies to help convince consumers to leave their home to see a movie? For example, do they see augmented and virtual reality, or immersive audio, as key for attracting and retaining audiences?

However good home theatres become - nothing beats watching a film as soon as its released, on a screen the size of a swimming pool with the lighting, contrast, volume etc all tuned to perfection.

And of course in a cinema we have a team of people dedicated to giving guests great hospitality and an uninterrupted experience during the film, so everyone can totally lose themselves and become totally absorbed in the film.

Of course there's a lot of technology behind this that we can offer, as well as sheer scale of screens. Our Group has the most Premium Large Format (PLF) screens in Europe, and we have very close partnerships with IMAX, Dolby and we also offer our own brand experience - Isense. A lot of our guests are very keen to see the big films on a PLF screen - and increasingly we're seeing films that suit this quality of projection - from Marvel and DC superhero movies to Mad Max, Everest, Jurassic World, Spectre and of course Star Wars. Last year, for example, our team that run the BFI IMAX in London stayed open for over 165 hours straight, with 63 sell outs in a row and 96 sell outs in the first 120 shows of Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

There is a lot of discussion regarding 2k vs 4k. We find that 4k isn't required until the screen becomes very large. This would obviously mean the pixels would get larger and the definition would drop, so when we install screens over 15 meters we now install 4k. The main benefit comes when the content is mastered in 4k rather than played back in 4k. 4k mastered images look superb projected on a 2k projector, so it's mostly the source material that is the key factor.

Immersive audio is a great new addition to the cinema experience that we are adopting more and more an we are incorporating this in our I-Sense PLF auditoriums. We see/hear a huge benefit and we are increasingly installing this in our new cinemas - for example in the ODEON cinemas in Orpington, Kent (UK) and Charlestown, Dublin (Ireland) that we opened in the last eight months.

We are also looking into different screen technology to ensure a uniform bright image across the whole screen in 2D and 3D and ensuring contrast is maximised by having very low level lighting.

We have also made the decision to come back to having moving masking on the sides of the screen to frame the image better, as the floating and static cinemascope screens have proven to be less agreeable to most audiences, and we want to frame everything correctly.

VR is too early to tell but we're keeping a close eye on it. It seems more like offering a different experience to guests rather than telling a traditional story, but who know where it may lead if someone gets very creative with it!

The Innovation Labs that we set up in London and Barcelona last year are there to capture the latest ideas and thinking to ensure that we stay at the cutting edge of developments and can adapt as new technology and experiences are trialled and come to market. We want to be part of those discussions early on.

TK: What are movie studios doing – or in some cases, not doing – that affects theater operators’ AV requirements? For example, there are more and more 3D/spatial audio systems on the market and the cost is coming down. But films have to be mixed for these systems. Are studios doing that?

Sometimes it takes a short while for everything and everyone to catch up. Historically, it can be a little frustrating when we go to great expense to install 3D spatial immersive sound systems in our cinemas, and then we have to show a film that hasn't been mixed in that format. Fortunately it is getting rapidly better as more and more films are mixed this way.

That said, a normal 5.1 or 7.1 mix does sound stunning when played through an immersive system like Dolby ATMOS.

Look out for the full feature on cinema technology Odeon participated in the upcoming June edition of InAVate magazine. Read the latest issue online here.

More Q&As in the series: 
Adil Zerouali, a regional director within EMEA for cinema services at Christie
Tom Bert, senior product manager at Barco


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