Organizing your cinema for the unattended booth

September 18, 2018
  • Insights
Written by Tom Bert, Senior Product Manager, Barco
Operating a cinema has evolved a lot since the days of 35mm projection. One of the promises of the digitization was to bring more automation. Some exhibitors are taking this further to the level of the unattended booth: a setup where all cinema staff are working in the lobby, selling tickets, in the auditorium… or centrally. In this blog post, we zoom in on how to organize your booth so that you never have to enter it again. This relates both to the products you need and how you can connect them.

Keep your projectionist
To start off, we want to make it clear that operating an unattended booth is different from not having a projectionist any more. If cinema compares to TV, as fine restaurant dining compares to a microwave meal (and it does, according to me), then the value of a good chef in the kitchen is not to be underestimated. The quality of the moviegoing experience defines perceived value for moviegoers. Whether they will come back soon, and whether he’ll buy that big bucket of popcorn again – it’s largely defined by how they experienced their last visit.

Exhibitors should carefully monitor and control the moviegoer experience. Since the actual screening is a big part of that, there should be a chef in the kitchen who makes it the best possible meal. Calling that chef, the projectionist or show manager doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he or she has the tools to focus on the most important part of the job – the part that creates most value for the moviegoer.
 
Movie screening
If we zoom in on the actual movie screening, the value is created in the auditorium: on-screen image quality, audio quality, screen size, and of course content. As a projector manufacturer it’s hard to admit that all the stuff in the booth is only there to create an optimal experience on the opposite side of the porthole window. This is working behind the scenes. If everything is set up and used properly, the ‘cinema chef’ shouldn’t be preoccupied with what’s happening behind the scenes.

To put it boldly this I the ideal scenario: he/she opens the cinema doors in the morning and the correct movies are automatically played in the right auditorium for the rest of the day. Flash forward to four years later: when giving a new employee a tour of the building, they are reminded that there is a little room in the back of the auditorium that holds a lot of smart technology that makes the magic happen. This is the unattended booth.
 
Why do you need an unattended booth?
Why would you like to do all this? There must be a reason why booths have been manned throughout the biggest part of cinema history, why should we do it differently now? Efficiency is key here. 
 
  • Space efficiencies: 35mm projectors were big machines that took up a lot of space. Movies came in reels that needed careful handling before, during, and after the screening. You needed – a lot of – physical space just to do your day-to-day job. Digitization brought some miniaturization: projectors are smaller than before; movies are now virtual bits and bytes. This has inspired exhibitors to use their real estate more efficiently: if you can install extra seats where your equipment used to be, you can generate extra revenue. To take this further, you can even move your equipment to an unused corner of the auditorium. The issue with the small spaces and unused corners is that they’re not suited to work in: this is what makes the unattended booth attractive (here not in the definition of ‘automated’ booth but to be regarded as ‘remotely operated’).
     
  • Time efficiencies: digitization enables a lot of integration. Why would you enter your screening schedule for Saturday evening four times – on your website, your POS, your lobby screens and your TMS – if it’s four times exactly the same digital information? If you can extend that integrated data flow to the end node, the projector that converts bits into light, you’ve saved yourself a walk to each projector… and a lot of time. Looking beyond the operational use at things like maintenance and service, you can even eliminate a five-hour flight. If you’re able to operate, maintain and service your cinema in an unattended way (here meaning both ‘automated’ and ‘remote’), you simply gain a lot of time. Time you can spend adding value for the moviegoers and yourself.

What does it take?
Let’s continue this bold brainstorm: what would it take to have a truly unattended booth? A location (room, box,…) where all the magic happens to generate the best possible movie experience… but where you never physically have to be after installation.

1. Operation

Operational actions for a cinema projection system can be broken down into three categories:
 
  • Power cycling: this means switching on the equipment in morning and switching it off at night. Does it have to be like that? Taking a step back, the reason why you activate your projector in the morning is because you’ve deactivated it the night before. And the reason why you switch it off is because a cinema projector is a relatively high-power device that consumes electricity, and electricity costs money. For the same reasons, you might want to power down in between shows. Furthermore, when a (Xenon-)lamp is present in the projector you introduce a very non-digital component with very particular behavior: lamp strike, lamp restrike, cool down, warm up, … In the digital age, this can look very different: lamps are being replaced by laser light sources, which give the option of following the ‘digital behavior’. Switching them on and off, fast and often, in an automated way is straightforward. Digital systems have the ability to go to very low power stand-by modes. From this ‘deep sleep’ it can wake up without human intervention (a.k.a. ‘flipping a switch’). Imagine a projector that can go to a mode of 1W power consumption automatically after its last show; and just before the start of the first show it wakes up out of that mode and boots itself automatically; in between shows the laser light source is switched off automatically. Do you still see the need to go into your booth for projector power cycling?
     
  • Data management: this means you can transfer content and keys to the playback server, as well as switching to correct alternative sources. The main reasons to physically go into the booth today are to ingest content from a USB connected storage and/or to manage events that are not ‘DCP-based’ (presentation from a laptop, live event from set top boxes,…). Integration helps improve integration: directly streaming the server content, easy source selection in a playlist etc. - all help making the exceptional use cases work in a standard/scheduled workflow. ‘IP-fication’ helps improve ingest and labor: a setup where all servers are connected via a high-bandwidth network connection takes away the complexity of the whole ingest process. In a setup where all user interfaces are web based (or more general: remotely accessible) and all content can be transferred fast and transparently, do you still see the need to go into your booth for data management?
     
  • Metadata management: this means transferring the playback schedule and playlists to the playback server. As mentioned before, it doesn’t make sense to go into your booth to configure a schedule that’s already known and configured in another system. Matching this to the unattended booth can mean either doing the configuration remotely (see above: the web based interface); or doing the configuration upstream (e.g. in the POS) and automatically pushing it to the projection system.

2.    Maintenance

These are the actions you do on the projection system pro-actively, that are not part of day-to-day operation. A typical example is cleaning dust from the unit. You might think that it’s impossible to match maintenance with an unattended ambition, since these maintenance actions typically require physically touching the device. That is true, but there are ways to be smart(er):
 
  • Sync the maintenance cycle(s): the projection system does not live on an island by itself in the projection booth. There is always some other equipment there (audio, HVAC, …) that also needs to be maintained. When talking to service partners, a maintenance cycle of six or twelve months is typical. When you synchronize the projector maintenance to that interval, you don’t create extra complexity, but leverage the existing workflow.
     
  • Make the maintenance fact-based: maintenance interventions are typically time-driven; “Swap your … every … years” or “Clean your … every … months”. This can lead to two things: either you’re too early (“I’m here to clean the …, but it’s not needed yet”) or you’re too late (“I was supposed to swap the … next month, but it broke today”). Secret option number three – being right on time – is for the best students in the class. Imagine applying the same principle to re-fueling your car; where the car manufacturer prescribes: “Fill your tank every week” (whether it’s still 90% full or whether you’re stuck on a road side for two days with an empty tank). We find it logical and handy that our car informs when the tank is – almost – empty. Applying that same basic principle of ‘fact-based-maintenance’ to projectors allows you to come one step closer to the unattended booth: you’ll never be too early or too late; you’ll never have to be there unless it’s really necessary.

3.    Service

These are the reactive actions you take for your projection system, that are not part of day-to-day operations. These are typically ad hoc and unplanned interventions. For this kind of trouble-shooting, remote connectivity is the standard way of working today: accessing the system from outside the booth, allows fixing things that are in scope of the software functionality. However, there is an opportunity to improve the behavior and way of servicing, by trying to prevent and predict errors. The same way that facts-based-maintenance is based on internal sensors and intelligent processing of the measured data; you can apply the same principles to detect service issues. For example, when temperatures are starting to rise, you can use it as indicator to prevent problems. Note that it’s not only a matter of stuffing the system with measurement devices; the collecting, processing, and interpretation of the data equally important.

Conclusion 

Cinema owners or managers who want to focus on creating value for the moviegoer can gain a lot from minimizing behind-the-scenes work on booth equipment. Aiming and designing for the ultimate – a truly unattended booth – can yield real-estate and resource benefits, which immediately impact your top and bottom line.

Zooming in on the projection system, it’s all about providing the proper interfaces that enable the unattended booth:
 
  • Interfaces should be open and agnostic: in order for the projection system to completely disappear behind the scenes, it should transparently integrate with peripheral devices. These devices can be building management systems (power cycling), the TMS (content and schedule management) or any system that the exhibitors consider crucial in the front-end of his day-to-day operations. This is only possible when the projection system is built from the start with an open and agnostic interface to the outside world: not proprietary, based on standards, maintained and extended by the manufacturer.
     
  • Interfaces should be performing well: only when the interfaces are performing sufficiently, will they allow replacing the currently non-integrated interactions. Transferring content should be fast, the projection system should be responsive to triggers, multiple users in different locations should be able to work on the system simultaneously etc.