Can better audio drive cinema revenue?

The move towards 3D visuals has given the cinema industry a financial boost. As digital cinema delivers uncompressed, loss-free audio, an improved listening experience can increase ticket sales.

We’ve never had it so good. Haven’t we?

A quick glance at statistics from Screenvision would suggest that all was rosy in the garden of US cinema going into 2012. The months of April, May, July and September 2011 were the highest grossing of all time. The launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 saw both the highest opening day total and highest grossing opening weekend.

Yet, the US box office fell to a 16 year low. The estimated number of tickets sold dropped 4.4% to 1.28 billion representing the lowest figure since 1995. Estimates from the Numbers Reference Library suggest that sales will fall again in 2012 to 1.24 billion. In 2011, the US cinema market was worth $10.2 billion.

There is, of course, impressive growth in developing markets. In China, a new cinema is opened every 4 hours. As the country admits more Hollywood titles, this is potentially good news for the studios. It doesn’t offer much cheer to theaters across more developed markets.

3D is still attracting audiences

The UK also saw a ticket drop in 2011. Yet, its box office receipts were up 5%. Industry body, the British Film Institute, put this anomaly down to the increased revenue from 3D movies. Although some commentators suggest a growing ‘3D fatigue’ within developed cinema markets, it seems that cinema-goers still prefer the format. The evidence is that people will select the 3D version over its 2D alternative and are prepared to pay a premium.

Still the sales drop-off is worrying. There could be many reasons: the economy, the weather, the content. Disney is currently facing box office purgatory with John Carter. The purpose of this piece is not to analyze the problem but to look at what can be done.

People love cinema

The first point to be made is that the US cinema industry is not in crisis. According to Screenvision, more people went the the cinema in 2010 than attended sporting events and theme parks combined. In less than two weeks, Screenvision theaters had as many attendees as the entire NFL season. Add to this that the average cinema-goer has a 15% higher household income than US population as whole. They have very definite buying intentions – over 10% say they go shopping after the cinema!

The perennial question is how to get more people into the the theater. Like Mark Twain, the death of cinema has been greatly exaggerated – a great number of times – however the central proposition remains the same. The cinema industry must react positively to changing consumption patterns. TV didn’t put an end to cinema. Today, you need to add the Internet and mobile to the mix of how the average American consumes movie content.

Making a noise for sound

Above the social aspect, cinema’s point of differentiation has come from providing an experience that was not available elsewhere. Although in its infancy, the growth of 3D TV is already seeing the cinema’s lead in 3D visuals eroded. So, what comes next?

I guess the suggestion that the answer could very well be audio will be met with knowing smiles in some quarters. If we were honest we would say that the sound stage in many theaters can be a little flat. We’d said that the audiophiles at home have seen their sound quality improve substantially over the past decade but we’ve only really seen minor audio improvements in the theater.

In truth, the potential of the full bandwidth in digital cinema and a move from 5.1 to 7.1 surround has not yet yielded the improvements it could due to limitations in processing technology. The easiest – if over-stated – way of putting it is that the average US cinema-goer could receive a better listening experience at home than at their local cinema.

There is no reason for this to be the case any more. Cinema processor technology and cinema sound formats have caught up. We’re not only capable of restoring the sound stage but enhancing it. There is no loss of sound quality. It can have new levels of clarity and transparency. More importantly, we can deliver a major step forward in terms of localization and the realistic-ness of the sound as perceived by the cinema-goer.

Something you just can’t get at home

Whereas we used to describe the cinema experience as immersive, we can now deliver. We can make every person in the theater feel that they are at the center of the action. For the next few years, this type of listening experience will not be able to be re-created at home. There’s plenty of evidence that where cinema leads the home market follows. It seems very likely that the average person’s first experience of this new level of sound will be in the cinema.

Is the audio experience a marketable benefit? The answer has to be positive. The difference between the type of cinema sound we can now deliver to digital cinema and our previous capabilities can be compared to watching a 3D film in 2D. US adults say they are twice as likely to go to the cinema more than once a month than to a bar or nightclub. We just have to convince them that their experience will be rewarding, social and not available elsewhere.

The new generation of cinema sound may just hold the key.