As movie theaters experience their usual holiday upswing, guest writer Tom Bert takes a look behind the scenes: at digitization in the cinema, its effect on operation and the unmanned booth!

Operating a cinema has evolved a lot since the days of 35 mm projection. Digitization arrived with the promise of greater automation and some exhibitors have already applied the "unmanned booth" scenario where cinema staff work in the lobby, ticket sales or auditorium. In this blog post, we focus on how to organize your booth so that you never have to enter it again.

  • The unmanned booth
  • Take control of operations
  • Go for smarter maintenance
  • Trouble-shooting and service
  • It's all about the interface


To start off, I want to make it clear that operating an unmanned booth is not the same as not having a projectionist. 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 movie-going experience defines the perceived value of the movie-goers. The chances of people coming back soon (and buying that big bucket of popcorn again) are defined to a great extent by their previous experience. Exhibitors should carefully monitor and control the movie-goer's experience. Since the actual screening is a big part of that, there should be a "chef" in the kitchen making it the best possible serving. It doesn't matter if we call that person the projectionist or show manager. What matters is that he or she has the tools to focus on the most important parts of the job: where most value is created for the movie-goer.

If we zoom in on the actual movie screening, that value is created in the auditorium with on-screen image quality, audio quality, size of the screen… and of course content. Remember, all that gear in the booth is only there to create an optimal experience on the opposite side of the porthole window. If everything is set up and operated properly, the show manager shouldn't be worrying or busy with what’s happening behind the scenes. In an ideal scenario, he/she unlock the doors in the morning and then, throughout the day, the correct movies are automatically screened in the correct auditorium. Maybe the next time a new employee is shown around the building, the show manager will get a reminder that there is little room in the back of the auditorium with a lot of smart technology, making the magic happen. Enter: the unmanned booth.

All nice and dandy, but 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, so why do it differently? It all has to do with being efficient in time and space.

  • Space efficiencies: The old setup included 35mm projectors which 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 job. Digitization came hand-in-hand with 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. Put bluntly, if you install seats where you used to have equipment, you could generate extra revenue. If you move equipment to an unused corner of the auditorium, you get even more space. The problem with the small spaces and unused corners is that they are not great work spaces… which explains part of the attraction of an unmanned (remotely operated) booth. 
  • Time efficiencies: digitization also enables a lot of integration. Why would you enter your screening schedule for Saturday evening four times (your website, your POS, your lobby screens and your TMS) if it’s 4x 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 case at factors such as maintenance and service, there is not only an opportunity to save a walk, but, say, a five hour roundtrip. If you can operate, maintain and service in an unmanned way (here meaning both “automated” and “remote”), you gain a lot of time. Time to spend adding value for the movie-goers and yourself.

Let’s continue our bold brainstorm: what would it take to have a truly unmanned booth? A location (room, box, space) where all the magic happens to create the best-possible movie experience… but where you don't have to be, once it’s installed.

Take control of operations

Very basically, the operational actions on a cinema projection system can be broken down into three categories:

  • Power cycling: this means powering up the equipment in morning and powering down at night… but does it have to be like that? Taking a step back: the reason why you power up in the morning, is because you’ve powered down the night before. And the reason why you power down is because a cinema projector is 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 behaviour: lamp strike, lamp-restrike, cool-down, warm-up, … In the digital age, this can look very different: lamps are being replaced with laser light sources, which give the option of following the “digital behaviour”. 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 standby modes. From this “deep sleep” it can wake up without human intervention (aka “flipping a switch”). Imagine a projector that can go to a mode of 1W power consumption automatically after last show; just before the start of the first show it would wake up out of that mode and boot itself automatically; in between shows the laser light source is switched off automatically: do you still see a need to go into your booth for projector power cycling?
  • Data management: this means transfer of the content and keys to the playback server, as well as switching to the correct alternative sources. The main reasons to physically go into the booth today in this context, 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 the latter: directly streaming the server, easy source selection in a playlist, … all help making the exceptional use cases work in a standard/scheduled workflow. IP-fication helps improve the former: 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 UI’s are web based (or more general: remotely accessible) and all content can be transferred fast and transparently: do you still see a need to go into your booth for data management?
  • Metadata management: this means transfer of 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 unmanned booth can mean either doing the configuration remote (see above: the web based interface); or doing the configuration upstream (e.g. in the POS) and automatically pushing it to the projection system.

Go for smarter maintenance

Maintenance actions are generally pro-active, not part of day-to-day operation. Typical examples are cleaning the unit from dust. You might think that it’s impossible to match this with the unmanned ambition, since typically these maintenance actions 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 6m or 12m 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 facts-based: maintenance interventions are typically time-driven; “Swap your … every … years” or “Clean your … every … months”. That can lead to two things: either you’re too early (“I’m here to clean the …, but it’s not really dirty yet) or you’re too late (“I was supposed to swap the … next month, but it broke today”). Imagine applying the same principle to re-fueling your car, where the car manufacturer prescribes: “Fill your tank every week” (regardless of whether it’s still 90% full or you've been stuck on the side of the road with an empty tank for the last two days). We find it both logical and handy that our car lets us know when the tank is almost empty. Applying that same basic principle of facts-based-maintenance to projectors brings you one step closer to the unmanned booth: you’ll never be too early and never too late; you’ll never have to be there unless it’s really necessary.


Service operations are performed on the projection system reactively, not as part of day-to-day operation. These are typically ad hoc, not-planned-for interventions. For this kind of trouble-shooting, remote connectivity is the standard way of working today. Accessing the system from outside the booth lets you perform fixes within scope of the software functionality. (Repairing or replacing hardware without entering the booth is only for true magicians!). However, you can improve the behavior and service method by trying to prevent and predict errors. Just as facts-based maintenance relies on internal sensors and intelligent processing of the measured data, you can apply the same principles to detect when, for example, temperatures start to rise and then 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 is at least as important.

It's all about the interface

Cinema owners or managers who want to focus on creating value for the movie-goer can gain a lot from reducing behind-the-scenes work on booth equipment. Aiming and designing for the ultimate – a truly unmanned booth – can yield real-estate and resource benefits, all things immediately impacting top and bottom line.

On the road to the unmanned booth, it’s all about providing proper interfaces that are open and effective.

Interfaces should be open and agnostic: in order for the projection system to complete 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 performant: it's only when the interfaces are sufficiently effective, that they will be able to replace 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…

Enjoy your next visit to the cinema!

Reprinted by kind permission of the author. The contribution was first published on LinkedIn! 


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