June/July 2016 Issue
Two longtime Arkansas manufacturers are playing
leading roles in enhancing the sound
and picture experiences of movie theaters worldwide.
Top photo: A Klipsch behind-the-screen system at Fix Brewhouse in Indianapolis. Photographs courtesy of Klipsch Group and Power Technology
Over the past 10 years, movie ticket sales have been holding steady, with a slight increase in 2015. As cinema operators are looking for ways to draw crowds, many are turning to cutting-edge technology to create a new movie-going experience.
Two longtime Arkansas manufacturers are hoping to be a part the action — each with products enhancing the visual and audio systems of movie theaters.
“People have been given reasons not to go to the movie theater,” said Walter Burgess, vice president, sales and engineering at Power Technology Inc. in Alexander.
Since 2006, annual U.S. and Canada box office sales have hovered around $9 billion to $10 billion, but increased 8 percent to $11.1 billion in 2015, according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s Theatrical Market Statistics Report for 2015.
“When you look at technology over a 10-year period, we’ve seen an increase in high-resolution televisions, HDTV, 4K TV,” Burgess said. “We’ve now even gotten 3-D in the home. We’ve got content that we could never get before, with streaming Hulu and Netflix. We’ve got immersive audio at home with Dolby Surround sound that we just didn’t have 10 or 12 years ago.
“That means people don’t have as much motivation to get off of the couch and go to the theater and have a superior experience. But, cinema is doing a lot of different things to bring people back to the theater.”
Lasers and Cutting-Edge Visuals
Laser-illuminated projection is a budding technology that is upping the movie theater experience, Burgess said, and Power Technology, a laser manufacturer in operation since 1969, is one of only a few companies worldwide manufacturing lasers for cinema projectors.
The company launched the Illumina Cinema Laser System in the first quarter of 2015.
The system came about after a 2012 U.S. Department of Defense contract, where Power Technology spent $1.5 million to remove speckle from laser light, Burgess explained. Speckle is the granular pattern surrounding laser light, which is caused by the coherency and color purity that exists in light produced by lasers.
Burgess said the team learned that speckle reduction was also a need in the cinema industry, so the company spent about three years developing a laser light source specifically for cinema projectors.
“With the speckle-reduction technology and our core competency of lasers, cinema was wide open,” he said.
Laser projectors enhance the viewer’s experience by delivering a picture with a wider and brighter color spectrum. They also offer economic benefits for cinema operators, Burgess said.
For more than 60 years, cinema projectors have used xenon gas bulbs, which cost about $1,000 each and last about 1,000 hours, he said.
“When you put a brand new bulb in, it’s nice and bright. But over that 1,000 hours, it goes down until you have to change the bulb,” said Kristopher Hesson, marketing manager at Power Technology.
“They usually change it at about 50 percent brightness. If you and I go see movies [early in a bulb’s life], it’s awesome. We’re getting pretty, bright pictures. But what if we pay the same amount, and we go to the movie [later in its life]? We’re going to get a dimmer image. The difference with lasers is it will maintain 80 percent of its life. It will never go below 80, so you will get bright pictures no matter when you buy your ticket.”
Laser projectors also use much less electricity, while producing just as much — and better quality — light, Burgess explained.
“We don’t influence resolution, but when it comes to color, we get a lot more vivid, bright, saturated colors that are more lifelike,” he said. “We don’t realize we’re missing it with the bulb, but when you see the two side-by-side, it’s noticeable.”
Lasers are costly, and Burgess declined to say exactly how much, only that it’s a “significant capital expense.” However, according to a 2014 story in The Economist, first-generation laser projectors can be as much as $500,000 each.
Long-term savings lies in efficiency. Lasers last 30,000 hours and retain 80 percent of the brightness over that time. Burgess said theater owners could see a return on investment within two to seven years.
The technology, which Burgess emphasizes is 100 percent safe for consumers and workers, is available in the form of brand-new laser-illuminated projectors and in a retrofit of an existing projector. Hesson added that cinema owners can charge a premium price for shows using laser projectors, similar to the higher 3-D ticket prices.
Laser projectors are still considered cutting-edge in the cinema industry, only in place in about 100 of the 130,000 cinemas worldwide. No Arkansas cinemas have yet converted to the technology — though Burgess said the company did a temporary installation at Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock. The closest movie theater using laser projectors is in Galveston, Texas, and the IMAX in Branson, Missouri, recently announced its intent to bring on lasers.
Power Technology has an original equipment manufacturer agreement with Japanese projector company NEC, one of the largest cinema projector companies in the world, to use its lasers.
Next on the horizon is the company’s Illumina Light Farm, which allows one rack of lasers to power multiple projectors and could allow one Cineplex to run on a single light source, Hesson said.
Premium Sound Systems
While enhanced color and picture quality is likely to be a big draw in the future of the movie business, cinema operators are also adding amenities to boost sales. Gourmet foods, alcoholic beverages and reclining seats are just a few of the additions seen at cinemas in Arkansas and beyond.
Sound is another aspect contributing to the movie theater experience, and another Arkansas company is a major player in this space.
In 1946, Paul W. Klipsch, an audio engineer, founded his company based on his invention of a corner, horn-loaded speaker, called the Klipschorn, in Hope in Hempstead County. Through the years, the company has produced a variety of speakers and headphones for consumer and professional uses.
Klipsch became one of the go-to speaker manufacturers for cinemas in 1980, and today, the company ranks No. 3 globally among cinema sound suppliers, said Dusty Thomas, channel marketing specialist and cinema sales manager at Klipsch Group Inc.
Now, more than 25 cinema-specific models — including behind-the-screen, molded cabinet surround-sound speakers, subwoofers and lobby speakers — along with a host of other home-entertainment products are still manufactured at the Hope facility. The company, which was purchased by Audiovox Corp. in 2011, moved its business operations to Indianapolis in 1989.
Thomas said Klipsch’s speakers rely on four sound principles — high efficiency, low distortion, controlled directivity and flat frequency response — all of which are paramount to movie theater sound. The company continues to evolve as new sound-system technology evolves.
Being a major player in the cinema industry and No. 1 in home entertainment sound systems means that Klipsch sees all-around benefits, Thomas said. But, cannibalization in the industry is not a worry.
“We maintain continuity between cinema and our larger revenue portion of home theater,” he said. “They are separate experiences that we want to maintain. Humor is not as funny and action not as big if it’s not recalled on the big subwoofers and on the big screen [of movie theaters].”
The cinema industry has ebbed and flowed over the years, he said, and Klipsch has been along for the ride.
“Innovation is the fun part of cinema,” Thomas said. “It’s a natural, cyclical pattern. Our role is to continue to support the advents of technology.”
Klipsch has also developed a cult following, and each year, thousands of fans descend on Hope. This year’s pilgrimage on May 20-22 featured live music, plant and museum tours, product demonstrations and more.
“Once customers are in, they’re in,” Thomas said. “They absolutely embrace it.”
Mark Keith, director of the Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce, said, “To many people, maybe Klipsch is just a speaker. To serious audiophiles, they take it further.”
Longtime Hope residents say Klipsch’s presence in the town of about 10,000 has brought them a sense of pride, and kept a steady stream of jobs in the area over the past 70 years.
Steve Harris, president of the Hempstead County Economic Development Corp., said Paul W. Klipsch has been something of a role model for the people of Hope.
“People looked up to him, and saw what he did and what could be done,” he said. “It showed what could be possible in a small town. South Arkansas has not been a high-growth area, and this helps stabilize us.”
Ahead of Technology
Along with a sense of pride, the Klipsch brand gives Hope an “economic development bragging point,” Keith said. And, Harris said because the Klipsch brand is well known, it helps with recruiting new business to the area.
“When you go to a symphony hall or movie theater and see the Klipsch logo, it’s pretty neat,” Harris said.
The existence of science and technology companies, like Klipsch and Power Technology, in Arkansas are helping to put the state on the technological map as a place to do business. Their success could draw more companies to the state, create new opportunities and allow for higher-paying jobs. This is all in line with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s computer science education, tech-hub and workforce initiatives.
“Lasers are cool, and movies are cool,” said Burgess, who is also board chair of Arkansas STEM Coalition, a statewide partnership of educational, business and political leaders advocating for policies and programs to enhance STEM education.
Christopher Crane, Arkansas’ film commissioner, said, “Arkansas has always been on the cutting edge of technology advances. Cinematic experience being enhanced by companies like Power Technology and Klipsch is a testament to this.”
Burgess said science, technology, engineering and math industry jobs often pay more than 25 percent more than the average wage in Arkansas. And, Hutchinson has said there are close to 2,000 unfilled tech jobs in the state.
To ensure an educated workforce, Burgess said Power Technology and other similar companies in the state have partnered with Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock to offer a photonics technician certification. The company has just hired the first interns from the program, Burgess said.
“These types of jobs are how Arkansas is going to get to [a wage that’s] higher than the national average,” Burgess said. “No one expects technology to come from Arkansas. People see such a high-tech product from an unexpected place.”