From the moment you step through the door at a cinema, you are probably looking at something that software helped to make possible. Digital menu signs that flick through the latest popcorn offers, the list of show times on ticket machines, and even the air conditioning are all run by software in many cinemas around the world. If you have ever wondered about what technology powers digital cinemas, you can begin here for a behind the scenes tour of some of the software that puts the soda in your cup and the movies on your screen.
In the lobby
Let’s begin our tour where you would; in the lobby. Point of sale (POS) systems run the tills and self-service ticket machines, facilitating transactions and presenting the show times. This additional scheduling function separates cinema POS systems from others, and allows cinemas to benefit from automations like pulling up-to-date show times onto their websites.
At the concessions stand, lobby display control software cycles the nearby screens through relevant trailers and advertisements. In the near future, these screens might show even more relevant content, as technology (like beacons) that can target specific demographics, or even individuals as they walk past them, becomes more widespread.
In the auditorium
Once in your seat, a sophisticated set of equipment including screen servers, audio mixers, and a projector (or even two depending on the size of the screen), begin executing a series of instructions they have received from the central system that connects them all- the Theatre Management System (TMS). The TMS is the software responsible for putting the content on the screen, and handles everything from dimming the lights and turning the projector on, to building the playlists that make up every showing.
These playlists are made up of the individual pieces of content that cinemas receive to a central server called the Library Management System (LMS) via hard drive or satellite, in the form of encrypted Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs). Decryption keys called Key Delivery Messages (KDMs) are sent separately to unlock the content for playback, often simply via email to individual cinema sites. Today, rather than manually downloading each KDM from the email, a TMS can automatically transfer the content and KDMs from the LMS through to the correct screens, based on the cinema’s schedule. Even if KDM errors and transfer issues threaten to disrupt a showing, cinemas can use their TMS to diagnose the fault days before it would cause any problem.
Everything that plays out on screen is programmed into a playlist, and then in turn added to a weekly schedule. These playlists usually look something like:
Show start hardware automations
Gold spot advertisement
Show end hardware automations
Cinemas can manage which trailers and ads make up the pre-show for each individual feature by targeting them using filters like age rating, screen number, or time of day in their TMS. If the TMS can integrate with the POS, the playlists can be built automatically, based on the show times listed in the POS and the targeting that has been assigned to each piece of content.
Some cinemas offer experiences at a premium, like 4D motion seating or proprietary Premium Large Format (PLF) screens. Each of these extra systems can have their own interface, as in the case of 4D seating, which is programmed with a specially formatted track that synchronises the motion and effects along with the feature. Software then can support two business objectives; driving efficiency, and generating revenue.
In the back office
Cinema staff monitor all their screens through their TMS so they can proactively resolve any content or KDM issues, make last minute changes to screen allocations and schedules, and react to any unexpected situations.
For example, a cinema manager could pause playback and raise the lights in an auditorium, or access the feed from cameras installed in their projection booths to check that content is playing back correctly, all without leaving their desk. In between juggling operations, cinema staff also need to pull regular playback reports from their TMS to uphold their contracts with the distributors whose films they are showing.
A Smarter Cinema
Many other operational areas in cinema that software can improve have been identified and today solutions like the TMS reduce costs around the world. However, a TMS is just the foundation onto which additional efficiencies are built, and connecting screens to a wider ecosystem is the first step.
Enterprise TMSs take all the benefits of running a cinema with a TMS and multiply them. This software is housed at the head office of a cinema chain and allows them to centralise all their schedule building, content management, KDM delivery, reporting functions, and more. Hardware monitoring software can similarly show head office important statistics like equipment temperatures, projector lamp life expectancy, and network connectivity for efficient troubleshooting.
Software also presents new revenue generation opportunities by doing everything from optimising ticket pricing based on real-time demand factors, to introducing interactive pre-shows with second screen advertising, to using free Wi-Fi to send audiences personalised offers when they step through the front door.