Movie theater technology fights ticket sales declines

Future of movie theaters
Future of movie theaters

Despite headlines about blockbusters "Batman v Superman" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" driving record box office grosses, fewer people are going to the movies. The number of tickets sold in the United States has declined 7 percent since 2009; it's higher ticket prices that are driving up the total dollar numbers.

A number of factors are keeping customers home, including the explosion of in-home entertainment options. One solution? New technology that makes theaters dramatically different from what consumers could get at home.

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That's exactly what's on display at the Barco Escape, the cutting-edge theater launching Friday at the Regal theater at LA Live entertainment center, which is owned by AEG. The centerpiece is a three-screen panoramic theater, which wraps around moviegoers with surround sound. Theater technology company Barco is implementing new laser projectors, immersive speakers, and has outfitted the lobby with fast-changing high-definition displays.

"We need to raise the bar," says Barco Escape CEO Todd Hoddick. "We need to do something so compelling that people put down the iPad, leave the couch, and actually go to the cinema. This is why we created Barco Escape."

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And theater chains are increasingly thinking about how to differentiate their experience from increasingly impressive home theaters. Super high-definition 4-D theaters are on the rise, expected to be in nearly half of all U.S. homes by 2020. And not only is there a seemingly endless range of premium content from Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime and others; now we could see start-ups even more directly threaten theaters. Sean Parker co-founded a company called Screening Room, which aims to offer movies at home the same day they debut in theaters. While there are still some hurdles before it can launch, the amount of attention it's drawn in the past few weeks speaks to the interest in getting first-run movies at home.

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That's precisely why we'll see theaters invest in Barco Escape. Haddock said installing a Barco Escape screen costs about twice what a traditional screen costs, and he's in talks with all the major theater chains about installing these screens, and with the movie studios about creating content just for this format.

"We'll be in more than 1,000 locations in three to five years. We'll be in more than 100 by the end of this year. So we're well on our way," says Barco Escape CEO Todd Hoddick. "We'll be in the middle of a $100 million raise, and trying to partner with the right friends in the ecosystem."

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This is just the latest technology AEG is bringing to this Regal theater. Two years ago it implemented what's called a 4DX theater. The seats move and jerk along with the action in the film, bursts of air give a feel of the location of each scene, and smells are piped in to make moviegoers feel like they're "inside" a film.

And AEG's VP of marketing, Shelby Russell, said the 4DX theaters have gotten great feedback. "That shows us if we can provide an immersive experience, there's a demand for it," says Russell. "There's a young generation of moviegoers that want to be brought into the movie more. That's what Barco Escape does with the three screens; it brings you into the movie in a way that one screen can't do."