New Tech, New Look: Interview with Wim Buyens, CEO, Cinionic
Cinema technology leader Barco unveiled its new brand at CinemaCon 2018—Cinionic—the result of a collaboration between three founding partners to deliver the latest innovations to the exhibition community. Boxoffice caught up with the Wim Buyens, the chief executive of the new venture, to find out more about the new brand and its plans for the future.
What led to the decision to rebrand as Cinionic, and what does that mean for the Barco Cinema brand?
The Cinionic brand is part of a longer journey. We started this journey a few years ago, when we were thinking about what we could contribute to the direction the industry was taking. Cinionic came out of that; with 170,000 screens worldwide and 99 percent of those screens being digital, we saw there was an opportunity to take things to the next level. People need to be excited about going to the movies in order to get out of the house. Comfort has a role in that, food and beverage does as well, but there needs to be more—and we are coming to it from the technology and experience side of things. Now that we are post-VPF, we need to begin to invest in the next generation of experiences for the cinema. What we’re trying to do with Cinionic is to bring that technology to exhibitors in an affordable way. You have to bring them technology knowing that the VPFs are not there anymore, meaning finding alternative business models in order to facilitate that.
In the process of finding and defining a new brand for the venture, how did you settle on Cinionic?
The name of the brand, Cinionic, combines the word “cinema” and the element, “ionic,” which for us means bringing different cultures together. We have three shareholders: Barco, Appotronics (laser technology), and CFG (premium cinema solutions). It is bringing together new premium solutions and the full suite of Barco technology. More technologies coming together and driving cinema innovation, and that’s how we came to update the name and branding around that.
What led to the decision to discontinue your panoramic screen format, Barco Escape? And what others innovations do you have planned for the coming years?
Being an innovation company like Barco, and knowing what Cinionic represents to the cinema world, we need to continue trying new things. That’s the only way you can drive innovation—by always trying. We put a lot of effort in our attempt to differentiate our concept with the division of the three screens, the DCI-quality of the experience, but we underestimated a very important factor: content. In order to let this idea fly—not only as a technology but from a business aspect—you need to have a content pipeline of available titles. And these titles, they each need to have additional content created to suit this format. Barco is not a company who could nor would spend hundreds of millions on content creation in order to expand a new technology. We spent time looking for the right content partner who could close the circle in that sense, and it’s not something we succeeded in finding. It’s not Barco’s position to be a content company—it simply wouldn’t be the right position for us to be in. That’s the reason why I don’t think this concept worked, but in any case we are not dissuaded from continuing to develop new ideas and innovation. We were very happy with the technology and its execution, but we couldn’t secure the content to let it succeed.
Can you give us an update on your commitment to laser projection?
We are very strong on laser. We invested in this technology very heavily several years ago in order to become one of the dominant players in the laser space today. We have multiple technologies linked to laser—smart laser, flagship laser, laser phosphor, RGB laser—and we want to lead the pack in all those dimensions. What is true from the consumer experience is that they get better quality of picture, color gamut, contrast, better light levels … and we also believe that costs for exhibitors become much more optimized with laser. We showed our high-contrast smart laser solution at CinemaCon, which is stunning and just one example of the technology we have.
Another element we believe in is our projection concept, Vision 2020, which is looking at what is coming next from where projection is today. Laser is a given moving forward; we believe that new innovations moving forward will be laser driven. The technology concept we have behind the Vision 2020 concept allows tremendous high-contrast and brightness levels on the screen. It’s one of the big innovations we showcased at CinemaCon; bringing the next level of innovation to exhibitors in an affordable way.
One thing is improving the picture quality, and another element is upgrades. Laser finds its way to retrofits and they can also be unleashed to improve the picture quality for premium auditoriums. Now, if I’m an exhibitor looking to optimize my operation, I want to do so in one complex. That means I can not only market it as an all-laser complex, but I can also reduce my overhead and operate in a different way. That is helping exhibitors get a more efficient operation across an entire complex equipped with laser.
LEDs are currently the hot topic when it comes to cinema projection—more like the lack of projection. What are your thoughts on this technology, and does Barco have any plans to move into this space?
It’s been a big discussion point in the cinema-technology sector for the last 12 months. If you look at the history of Barco, we have been—and currently are—involved with LED for many years. There’s nothing from my end to hold people back who want to buy LEDs; we are happy to supply them from that respect. From a cinema perspective, there are a couple of things you need to achieve in order to have a product take off. The product has to be different, and I do believe LED shows advantages that the black levels and intensity are higher—which is something that our own Vision 2020 product also addresses. But then, of course, while the novelty of the product is great, you also need to make the economics work. At a cinema, the show must always go on, and products need to be reliable and also affordable. LEDs, I believe can shine in a much better way out in the lobby, for example, than inside the theaters themselves. Then again, it’s not up to me to say if it works or not. What we’re trying to do is to create the best technology we can with a value proposition that makes sense for our customers. In that point with LED, I think there’s still a way to go to make that happen.
What is the impact of growth markets—and newly opened markets, like Saudi Arabia—on a company like Cinionic?
Growth markets are important. A lot of our efforts have been around establishing our presence in this post-VPF market, and that just isn’t an issue in growth markets or new destinations like Saudi Arabia. If you look at a market like digital cinema, which has grown incredibly in the last 10 years, nobody expected we’d have the footprint we do today. I think we’re going to cross the 200,000-screen threshold in the world thanks to markets like China and Saudi Arabia but also regions like Latin America and Asia Pacific. I’d like to congratulate Asia Pacific for a lot of the innovations happening today; they host a huge amount of people who really want to go to the movies. It’s up to us to figure out how we can come up with solutions to make their screens affordable so they can continue growing. Growth markets are important for Cinionic, but we are a global company and we look to be active everywhere.