Even with onerous pandemic travel restrictions preventing the cinema industry from convening at trade shows for the better part of two years, Wim Buyens, the CEO of Cinionic, always managed to attend what few gatherings actually took place. He was one of the very few European executives to attend CinemaCon in 2021. What’s more, Buyens and his time showed up at each event to spread the word about new or upgraded products and services the cinema technology company was introducing.
When we sat down with Buyens during ShowEast in Miami last October to get the latest update on what Cinionic was up to, he had a lot to say about the current state of the industry in its post-pandemic recovery, where he saw projection technology headed and how that technology can help a cinema operator’s sustainability efforts. At the time, Cinionic, a joint venture between Barco, Appotronics and China Film Group, had just announced a deal with Cinépolis to bring laser projection to 2,600 of the chain’s screens throughout Mexico.
Converting existing screens to laser projection has been one of Cinionic’s main initiatives since the venture began four years ago. Currently, the company offers two ways for cinema operators to switch from xenon lamp projection to laser illumination. The most obvious is to buy a new laser-powered projector, of which Cinionic has installed over 30,000 throughout the world. The other is to retrofit an existing Series 2 projector with a laser light unit, taking out the xenon mechanism and replacing it with a laser light source. Some exhibitors choose both options when upgrading a single multiplex, as Buyens explained, “Customers want to have a mix of both. They want to go to laser, so with younger projectors they upgrade them. Then with older projectors, they replace the units entirely. What it does is allows us to go quicker to laser for the customer, if that’s what they want. And of course, because of electricity prices going up around the world that has made us much more attractive.”
Buyens is highlighting the significantly lower electricity cost of running a laser projector, over a traditional xenon one. Given the skyrocketing cost of electricity in some parts of the world, especially Europe, this benefit has become a deciding factor when an exhibitor chooses to make the switch to laser. “The world is not stable right now,” said Buyens. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow and the energy situation could get worse. Prices could rise even further. When exhibitors are making an investment they want to know they are making a smart investment. Because in the end, it’s hard to predict the uncertainty not only in the industry but in the world. Then they see the benefits they can get by jumping on a new technology, which by the way, has been proven for many, many years now. This is in no way new technology. Our first laser projectors as Barco were installed in 2014 and the technology has matured tremendously.”
An added bonus to the cost savings on electricity with laser projection is that the technology allows for cinema owners to “go green” and market their sustainability efforts to moviegoers. Even two years ago, sustainability was a nice to have feature that few in the cinema business were seriously focused on, according to Buyens. “We are definitely seeing a change. More attention is being paid to sustainability, and it’s something that the exhibitor wants to bring forward and talk about with their customers,” he said. “Now, there always has to be a return on investment and investment always has to make sense, so people are not going to make their decision only because of sustainability. But it’s an important parameter.”
One of the original obstacles exhibitors had with adopting laser projection was that it costs more up front than a xenon solution. While Barco and Cinionic have worked to lower the manufacturing cost of their projectors, there is only so much they can control given the size of the cinema market. “Even if we were to change all 200,000 screens in the world tomorrow to laser, we still would not drive the price because it gets driven by millions of other industries who have a volume in the millions where we only have tens of thousands of outstanding contracts to deliver,” Buyens said.
With the Cinionic’s laser technology now entering its fourth generation, Buyens pointed out that the company has been able to show how it is ultimately allowing cinema operators to save money over the long term, both in the cost of utilities, bulbs and other efficiencies. “We have longer lifetimes and we can better manage them because we have more knowledge around the technology,” he said. “As well, we can use different lasers than the first generation right now. So that’s helpful. And we have different laser technologies, which if you’re very price sensitive, you can choose instead to work within your budget.”
As the cinema industry continues to recover from the COVID pandemic, and with some big operators financially strapped, budgets are a concern for exhibitors. Buyens however isn’t overly concerned since, when setting up Cinionic he says Barco doubled down on cinema. “We had a strong belief that cinema is a sweet spot for a company like Barco, which is a medium sized technology company,” he continued. “From a Barco point of view, cinema is still very fundamental and we keep investing very heavily into technology and future technologies. For instance, how do we have current technology get integrated, smarter, to be able to drive the cost of running a cinema lower? Those are problems we’re constantly working on and we have definitely accelerated that during COVID because we believe in cinema.”
Buyens revealed that Cinionic is in a “good spot” coming out of the pandemic because it has invested so much in a technology they know very well and have been satisfying the demands of a very large customer base. “But of course, the market needs to have an appetite to invest and grow,” he stated, going on to discuss the market at-large. “I think we as an industry need a lot more, in my humble opinion, leadership, to embrace more and more changes and to make it more of a sustainable industry. I think we’re going to keep on growing steadily to reach new heights. But today, for investors, the outlook for cinema is a little bit too scary. If you think about cinema, you have to invest in buildings. You have to invest in equipment. That’s a 10 or 15 year cycle. As an industry, the steps we take now will shape the future of cinema.”