Published on March 17th, 2012 | by simeon0
Ultrastar Cinemas Interview on What is to Come for the Cinema Industry
I got the chance to speak with Damon Rubio, the Vice President Of Operations for UltraStar Cinemas. The chain is expanding and setting new standards for the moviegoing experience. Damon was kind enough to talk to us about the company, 3D, future tech, and more.
What is the history of Ultrastar and how it got started?
UltraStar Cinemas was founded in 1999 by John Ellison and Alan Grossberg with the mission of creating the kind of personal and community oriented movie-going experience that they felt was lacking in a marketplace dominated by larger corporate cookie cutter theaters. By focusing on improving the movie going experience for guests in every way UltraStar Cinemas has become a respected industry leader. In 2001 UltraStar Cinemas started experimenting with Digital Cinema and soon after became the first theater chain in the world to outfit all of its screens (102 of them at the time) with Digital Cinema capability.
What would you say are your greatest strengths as well as challenges for your chain being a regional chain as opposed to say a national chain?
Our greatest strength is that we are small enough that we can really focus on the theaters we have and make sure the quality of the movie experience is top notch. We also have a much better understanding of our market and can tailor the experience to best serve the local community.
Our biggest challenge is finding developers with new theater locations who understand what UltraStar can bring to the community and aren’t just looking for the largest theater chain with the biggest bank account to lease space.
How do you go about selecting your locations and can you tell us about your plans to expand the company? I understand you will be opening one in Maricopa in November and many people have asked me about it in terms of how many screens, how many 3D screens, Dbox, etc.
We enjoy bringing amazing theater complexes to underserved markets. I often say that the day we open a new theater it is the most advanced theater in the country and yet it’s not located in a major metropolitan area like New York or L.A instead it is in places like Lake Havasu or Maricopa. Critics will say “Why spend that kind of money to build such advanced theaters in secondary markets?” and I say, because that’s exactly the key to or success, I believe that no matter where the movie goer is located that they deserve the best movie going experience available which includes a modern and comfortable facility.
You have a new popcorn card program, can you tell us how it got started and what you plan to do in the future for this type of program?
Our Popcorn Card is new program that we are experimenting with in the Phoenix market. We felt that in this economy we wanted to provide a great deal to our most loyal movie patrons. Since everyone knows that a large part of enjoying the Movie Experience is having that bag of fresh popcorn we created the UltraStar Popcorn Card that you can purchase once (for $22) that allows you to receive Free Regular size popcorn every time you visit our theaters until December 31st of this year. When you realize that regular popcorn normally cost $ 6.25 at the concession stand you can see how this could pay for its self after just a few visits. Also a portion of the money we raise from the card goes to support a the MS Society.
3D films are all the rage now and while I love them, I have real issues
that many films are not really 3D and are converted post filming. I have
suggested that studios should have to disclose if a film was shot in 3D or
converted in post production so viewers can decide if they want to pay the surcharge to see a film in 3D. To me Avatar is a much better example of the impact of the new 3D technology than Clash of the Titans which used converted 3D which is a real night and day difference.
My question is what do you think of the notion of studios being required
to disclose the nature of the 3D especially now that Michael Bay and James
Cameron are also speaking out against the conversion process. What did you
think of the new 3D format when it started to take off a few years ago,
and what do you think of it now? Also, What do you think of the future of
the technology and how has it changed your theaters?
I don’t think we need to worry about disclosing what way a movie has become 3D, the fact is they can shoot 3D films in 3D that are just as bad as ones that have been made 3D in post. And visa versa, some 3D films that are done in post (like animated stuff) actually look really good. The bigger issue is having film makers utilize the technology when it’s appropriate and adds to the experience and not just creating 3D films for 3D sake. In the end, I think the marketplace is very good at sorting this out. Our chain will many times offer guest the same film in both 3D or 2D and let the guest decide if the 3D adds to the experience for them.
Theaters have always had to come up with new things when technology gave
viewers better options at home. When color tvs arrived, we got
Blaxsploitation films and bigger screens. In time we got THX sound. When
HD arrived and Home Theater Systems we got the new 3D in theaters. With
the arrival of 3D tvs and Blu rays what do you think is the next
technology for theaters to embrace?
High frame rates are going to be the next big thing. Now that the cinema world has mostly moved to a digital platform we are no longer bound by the physical barriers and challenges that are inherent in a mechanical system such as 35mm film. Instead of 24 frames per second we can project at much higher frame rates which will allow for smoother and crisper pictures and especial when done in conjunction with 3D improve the quality of the image.
As a follow up, can you please tell us about Dbox, how it enhances the experience, and how the technology will be expanded in your theaters?
D-box is another example of how UltraStar Cinemas embraces new technology that enhances the movie going experience. Dbox technology allows the guest to live the action that is happening in front of them on screen. Motion effect artists can use the chairs to mimic the subtle and some time not so subtle movements that are associated with the screen. This draws the movie goer into the film and enhances the experience like never before. UltraStar Cinemas was actually the first theater chain in the world to deploy Dbox seats and we thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive reaction from our guests who have experienced a film in Dbox.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing cinemas today and in the future?
Our biggest challenge is our friends in Distribution (aka the studios). They feel pressure to make their movies available faster and sooner to maximize their returns on a film. But in my opinion they are approaching a dangerous tipping point where they devalue their product and destroy the desire to see the every day film in a theater. The big screen epics will always have a place on the 40 foot screen and not the 4 inch phone but unfortunately theaters need guests to see the other 100+ films a year on the big screen in order to keep the lights on.
What do you consider to be the drawing points of the cinemas as even with
HD, Blu Ray, Movies on demand, and such, people still come out.
Most people do not want to be tied up at home all the time. Some times we want to get out and have that common / communal experience. Movie theaters provide that venue. When a company such as UltraStar Cinemas, works hard to remove the negatives of going out to the movies and focuses on making the experience great then I think people become loyal to the location and find the value in what we have to offer.
Finally, what summer movies are you most excited about and what can fans
look forward to at Ultrastar for the rest of 2012 and beyond?
For me this summer is all about The Avengers and the Dark Night. I am also starting to really get excited about the new film Prometheus which opens in June.