How Automation is Saving Cinemas Money

By Patrick von Sychowski | April 11, 2023 11:59 pm PDT

For cinemas counting on the end of Covid and the return of blockbusters, the twin challenges of skyrocketing energy costs and never-ending staff shortages could not have come at a worse time. To help overcome these challenges, exhibitors are increasingly turning to ever more innovative automation techniques, often removing humans from the equation and, in turn, significantly lowering their operating costs.

Cinema operators in Korea, with their advanced tech mentality, have tackled these twin-challenges by introducing robots to guide cinema patrons and contactless automaton boxes for collecting popcorn (sadly un-heated). Texas-based Flix Brewhouse and Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas have found success rolling out food serving robots, literally and figuratively. The automated food runners shuttle orders from the kitchen directly to a designated auditorium and promptly return for the next order. Given the price of labor in the United States, the robots pay for themselves within 30-60 days. In fact, the only problem the cinema chains have had with their robot waiters is that they can’t climb stairs.

And, of course, most cinemas have automated the ticket purchase process, allowing patrons to purchase them online or at self-service kiosks, negating the need for a cashier or box office staff.

Automating popcorn Korean style. (photo credit: Newsis / CGv Cinemas)

Automation to the Rescue

However, most cinemas have traditionally taken a less science-fictiony approach to technology, primarily relying on automation to improve the run-of-show; all the tasks usually performed inside the projection booth required to properly screen a film. “Manual projection and sound operation evolved into a near hands-off approach,” said Frank Tees, Vice President, Technical Sales Support at Moving iMage Technologies in California. “With 35mm film and now with digital cinema, a theatre can run entirely automated.”

As it relates to digital cinema, exhibitors were able to take the next logical step in their automation initiatives; manage content and monitor equipment via their theatre management systems (TMS). Instead of running to a booth to transfer a film between auditoriums, it can now be done from a manager’s office, or even remotely. Over the last decade this has proven to be a practical solution which quickly amounted to six-figure cost savings for cinema operators.

More recently, exhibitors are upgrading the systems within their buildings to better manage energy consumption. Though the initial reasoning was to “go green” and lower their carbon footprint, given the recent surge in the cost of electricity and natural gas, automating power usage, HVAC and even refrigeration has allowed cinemas to rack up cost savings faster than a food serving robot.

How Cineplex Slashed Their Electricity Costs

Someone who has had to think a lot about smart ways of reducing energy usage is Thomas Werder-Frank, with electricity costs shooting up after Russia strangled gas supplies to his native Germany. Thomas is responsible for the technical operation of the three Cineplex houses in Singen, Friedrichshafen and Reutlingen, with eight screens each.

Cineplex is Germany’s largest exhibitor operation and a customer of EIKONA’s TMS and software family of products. Commenting on Thomas, Andreas Stier, Sales Director of EIKONA, notes that Thomas, “is certainly one of the most experienced users of our software and pushes it to the max, especially when it comes to our Automation & Monitoring module.”

In the recent past, the electricity costs for Thomas’ sites amounted to €15,000 to €20,000 per site per month. ‘Pushing’ the EIKONA system he wanted to see what savings were possible. The 15% energy savings Thomas calculated were not based on electricity bills, but on how much less he could get his digital cinema, audio and associated equipment to run, based on scheduled on & off. The investment costs for enabling the changes – laying cables, relays, sockets, Loxon servers, etc. – were about 12.000€ per location.

A simplified calculation yielded the following: if we calculate only for electricity at 17,500 € of 15% savings, it makes €2,625 per month, minus licence costs of €232 for 8 screens. This makes for a saving of €2,393 per month per site. €12,000 invested, divided by €2,393 comes to 5,014. This gave him an ROI of five months and savings after that of €2,393 per site per month.

Automation as Part of the Larger Picture of Running a Cinema

Building systems have often already caught up to make sure energy demanding systems are better managed including lighting and HVAC. Lighting is scheduled in high use areas and managed with occupancy sensors in low use areas. HVAC systems manage not only temperature but carbon dioxide content to control a proper flow of fresh air into the environment that, depending on the season, may require a lot of energy to condition. Other physical building systems are automated as much as possible with an economic approach.

In addition to building-related energy usage for everything from HVAC to lighting, automation can also control the power supply to all cinema equipment. Exhibitors have different policies to powering these up and down, so there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way as it depends on the exhibitor, its requirements, as well as the equipment itself. However, there are often ways to make the equipment usage more energy efficient.

One major European exhibitor has, for example, a policy of leaving its servers on permanently, so that overnight downloads are not interrupted. In addition to the screen, sound and auditorium equipment, automation can also control kiosks and F&B equipment such as fridges, heaters, fryers and more that might be energy ‘vampire’ appliances overnight.

The Example of blue

An example of where a small change enabled by automation led to major saving was with blue Cinemas (formerly Kitag), the Swiss cinema major and also a long-time EIKONA client. Switzerland has banks, Alps and some of the highest wage levels in Europe. By automatically powering up the projection equipment in the morning and down at night without having staff present, this resulted in a significant annual saving on labour costs. Assuming one hour saved in the morning and one in the evening, multiplied by 365 days and across 12 sites, further multiplied by a Swiss average per-hour wage would theoretically yield a low six-figure euro annual savings – for just one tweak.

The biggest change has been the flexibility enabled by the system and the better staff utilisation. Previously staff were forced to run between all the auditoriums in the morning, to ensure that systems were powered up exactly 90 minutes before the start of the first showing, as well as running checks, etc. This rush meant there was a constant risk of mistakes, such as forgetting to pre-run the 3D system, not switching on power amplifiers, etc.

“Automation and monitoring has revolutionised the way we work and run our operations,” enthuses Matti Schildknecht, Head of Cinema Technology at Blue Cinema. “The technical work of the whole day is simply done automatically in the background and our staff no longer has to take care of it,” he notes. “This has streamlined the processes and our staff can be deployed elsewhere. At the same time we also save energy by powering devices on and off just in time.” Rather than using these new efficiencies to eliminate staff or save costs, Blue Cinema sees this technology enhancement as a way of enhancing service and utilise the staff better.

How Automation Can Save Money in F&B

An example from F&B where automation can help save energy is powering down refrigeration for cold drinks half an hour before the end of the last screening and then powering it back up in the morning. Because refrigeration units differ, exhibitors should do tests to see if the power consumption of leaving the units overnight is greater than the power required to cool the unit down from ambient to the required temperature. While refrigeration units might be relatively straightforward to power up/down, auditorium equipment such as amplifiers differ from brand to brand. So for operational safety reasons, the cinema operator should always check with their vendors and integrators about which units it is safe to turn on and off, as opposed to leaving them on permanently.

Automation is also key in terms of keeping costs down for staff hours and staff training. Being an entry-level job for many, there is a tendency in large parts of Europe of junior staff being on a two-year cycle, working in a cinema for example while they study. This means that when they leave there is a knowledge drain, coupled with a need to spend time and resources onboarding and training new staff. With automation there is an ever-increasing ability of more senior staff to be able to program and handle simple functions without needing to involve those front line workers.

The main benefit of agile automation systems, such as EIKONA’s, is that they can deliver faster savings in energy cost and manpower, as opposed to buying new equipment (particularly robots!). They are easy to retrofit and once in place added features are software updates that need no manual intervention or installation. With faster ROI they can also deliver tangible quality improvements beyond the cost savings. Above all they ensure operational safety, which is more paramount than cost savings for a customer-facing business, whether a big multiplex chain or small independent cinema operator. In these times of rising costs and the need to cut spending, it seems that cinemas are ready to embrace more automation as an easy win.

Patrick von Sychowski
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