keithmeltonampasscreeningmummiessecretscdw7vc93rislThis is a companion piece to the article “Can You DIGSS It: Giant Screen Looks For Standards in Digital Projection,” which appeared in Issue 44 of InPark Magazine.  It appears here with permission of InPark.

As a giant screen film production and distribution company, what led you down the path to digital installations?

This was a classic case of “necessity is the mother of invention.”   Several years ago, we worked out an arrangement with the exhibits company AEI whereby our large-format film “Mummies” became the official companion film of the King Tut exhibit.  “Mummies” was an off-the-charts success at every Tut giant screen venue.  However, with the exhibit was scheduled to go to several museums that did not have giant screen venues, we worked with AEI to install digital 3D venues at these museums in time for with their Tut runs.   While not traditional giant screens, the attendance at these digital 3D theaters was incredibly strong.   Digital 3D technologies had just evolved to the point where they offered an exceptional theatrical experience and were also affordable, so it was really great timing for us.   So we got an initial taste of the degree to which audiences were embracing digital 3D through these Tut runs, and realized that there was an opportunity out there in the overall museum marketplace.   And that opportunity was two-fold.   First, the conversion of existing film-based giant screen theaters to digital 3D, dramatically improving the exhibition economics of our core market.  Second, building new digital 3D theaters at museums around the country and world that either could not afford or simply did not have the footprint to build a classic giant screen cathedral.    The theater at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is an example of this.   This is really exciting, as it expands the network of museum theaters running documentary content.

At one time you were a Christie dealer.  Do you still work with Christie or are you exclusive to Barco? 

D3D is technology agnostic and we continue to sell projectors from all manufacturers.  We believe that every theater, every integration is unique and there is not one solution for all clients.  This goes for projectors, screens, servers, audio and 3D technology.

You have a strong relationship with Barco.  Has the IMAX deal placed any restrictions on your access to Barco equipment now or in the future?

We can sell every projector that Barco brings to market commercially – including lasers.  There is some confusion about this fact in the market right now, so I’m glad you asked this question.   So, again, D3D is presently selling modular projection systems with an upgrade path for lasers.  Furthermore, D3D can and will sell laser-based projection systems as they are made available commercially on the market.  Barco may, of course, choose to customize projectors for resale as proprietary technology as part of their new partnership.  Of course Barco is co-developing a proprietary system with IMAX but that will not interfere with their efforts to independently develop and bring to market laser solutions for the rest of us.  That said, we believe strongly that DCI compliance is critically important for any giant screen venue, and modifications to the projector technology or architecture likely will void the compliance.

How did D3D get involved with the digital summits at Moody Gardens?

D3D was co-host of the symposia in 2011 and 2012.  We believed that an event to showcase new technologies would serve the industry well, and was long overdue.  So instead of simply showing content on the existing Moody Gardens system, we outfitted them with a dual 4K 3D projector setup and provided content for demonstrations and shootouts.  We’re proud to have helped pioneer these events and facilitate many industry “firsts,” including: the first 4K giant screen demonstration, the first 4K 3D giant screen film presentation, the first back-to-back 3D technology showcase, the first giant screen 1570 vs 4K shootouts (16:9 and 4:3), the first high frame rate demonstration on a giant screen, the first 3D audio demonstration in a giant screen theater, and the first giant screen laser light engine demonstration.  Our aim was move the industry dialog beyond baseless proclamations about film vs digital by simply testing the new technologies in such as way so that participants could draw their own conclusions.  None of the demonstrations had been tried in advance of the symposium, so even D3D did not know what to expect.  In the end, we believe that the Moody events helped educate clients about the myriad of options on the market so that they can make a more informed decision.  We also believe that the shootouts unequivocally illustrated that the digital revolution had reached the shores of giant screens.   And that is truly exciting on many levels, first and foremost economically, because the 15/70mm market has been a tough one for a long time.

Do D3D customers get any priority access to films from D3D and partners (i.e. before non-D3D customers in the same market)?

In most instances, the theaters we are building are in new markets where there currently aren’t any other museum venues showing our films.   When there are two or more theaters, we are very careful not to play favorites in the theater marketplace.   Of course if we have a theater that is willing to commit to an across-the-board slate of our films or has a plan in place to nicely launch and have great success with one of our films,we can grant exclusivity for a period of time.

What input did your company have in the development of DIGSS?

We did not have any involvement in the formulation of DIGSS, although Art Mercurio, VP of Technical Operations at D3D, is currently on the DIGSS task force.   While as giant screen veterans we appreciate the intention of DIGSS, we believe that it is misguided and initially reflected a desire on the part of some to stall the digital era.  By trying to impose standards on the market that would prevent theaters from taking full advantage of the superior digital economics, DIGSS had a difficult road from the outset.   At this juncture, it appears to be on the wane, as many once ardent DIGSS proponents seem to now agree that it is no longer worth pursuing, realizing that our industry is unlikely to drive custom hardware development.

The great thing is that, from an image quality standpoint, the D3D installations happening now meet and exceed most of the DIGSS compliance recommendations.  And while we understand the desire for existing giant screen theater operators to use their full screen height, it is clear from the marketplace that audiences don’t notice or care about this.   Those theaters that have gone 16:9 (masking off the unused screen height but still using full screen width) have seen no impact on attendance; nor have they seen  drop in appreciation of the giant screen experience in their audience testing.  While there were a few theaters that chose DIGSS, they ended up spending four to five times more than necessary simply to have 4:3 aspect ratio capability.  Ultimately with digital films going forward shot in 16:9, altering the on-screen image to 4:3 will result in a loss of information, resolution and light.   New technologies and market forces are moving faster than a niche regulatory body could have foreseen.

If I were a potential customer, what selling points could you give for me to convert to a D3D system vs. going with a digital IMAX?

In the 15/70mm world, IMAX truly were the pioneers and had a technology/platform that was second-to-none.   So they were able to charge a premium price and generate revenue in all sorts of ways, from expensive maintenance arrangements to ongoing system license fees.   Obviously the theater experience was unmatched, but the economics were difficult for many venues.    Now, in the digital world, IMAX is one of many choices, most of which provide a very similar and still superior viewing experience.   But IMAX is asking museums to continue to pay a significant premium, and not just in terms of the upfront cost of the projector, but also on the many other components, in most cases preventing theaters from fully capitalizing on the massive operating cost savings of the digital era.    So a continuation of the what you could call the “bad economics of the past” becomes really tough value proposition going forward, particularly with such great alternatives now available, whether from D3D Cinema or others.

Frankly, our belief is that for the vast majority of museums, the real brand is the museum itself.  This is especially the case today.    Most of these theaters been around for a long time; when a museum announces they are bringing new cutting-edge digital technology to their giant screens, it’s greeted with excitement.   The theaters that we have worked with who have switched away from IMAX and re-branded their theater have actually seen an increase in attendance.   It’s also ironic that prior to any of these digital developments, many of the museums in our marketplace were decrying the degradation of the IMAX brand because of IMAX’s rapid expansion into commercial theaters, and seeking differentiation from these other IMAX venues; the “Bigger, Better, Bolder” initiative spearheaded by the GSCA was a byproduct of this.  So when in this already difficult climate IMAX attempts to sell these very same museums on the critical importance of their brand, and that they need to continue to pay the brand-related premiums that they have historically paid, it’s a tough road.

As for D3D, I’ve already made a bunch of points.   One thing I didn’t mention is that the key people in our organization collectively have decades of experience working at museums, so they understand the issues that our potential customers face very well, and can very quickly zero in on what really matters from the standpoint of a museum operator.    This is one reason why we were ahead of the curve a bit; why we started doing this before anyone else.    With this head start, we have converted or installed many theaters, and our clients have all had excellent experiences working with our team.

Why are your customers’ theaters not publicly branded D3D?

Again, in the digital world, the real brand is not the theater techonology or system integrator, but the museum venue itself.   At the same time, we are just now beginning to place relatively small D3D Cinema logo plates in our venues, less because we see a brand value in this and more because we take immense pride in the fact that we are helping museums eliminate several hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs.   It’s just enormously gratifying.

D3D refitted some of the old Action Theaters to digital 3D for Cedar Fair.  Do you have other current or future theme park or non-institutional attraction customers and do you see this as a field for growth?

The motivation behind the Cedar Fair deal was to outfit them with upgraded technology so they could run a custom version of our Dinosaurs Alive 3D show in conjunction with the Dinosaurs Unearthed exhibition, for which the film is the official companion.  Our primary goal is to grow a vibrant market of theaters truly committed to experiential documentary content.  In many cases there are non-institutional attractions that are drawn to our content and partnership model.  Similarly there are ‘institutional attractions’ working with D3D  as they seek more enriching, mission-relevant films than cartoon ride shows.  Zoos and aquariums, for example, historically seemed more interested in attraction ride shows.  But this is changing now, due largely to the affordability of cinema technology coupled with a growing zoo and aquarium film portfolio.  Our newest release, Titans of the Ice Age, is gearing up to be a strong performer in zoo theaters – an entertaining film to be sure, with lots of CGI eye-candy, but it’s underlying messages about habitat conservation and extinction dovetail perfectly with zoo missions.  So we do see market growth in the attraction sector, though we remain fundamentally committed to documentary content and building a network of theaters that feature (short or long format) films that inspire, cultivate, educate and entertain.

Has D3D done any digital installations outside of the US and, if so, were there any issues confronted that you did not encounter domestically?

Yes.   We’ve done both giant screen conversions as well as new theater installations.   While you have the usual international commerce issues, these have gone fairly smoothly.

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