The Dying of the Light

Just how long a life can a cinema operator expect from their digital projector? Equipment installers Sound Associates have been handling projection systems for years — Graham Lodge and Mark Foreman examine the issue of longevity.

Sound Associates has been installing digital cinema projectors since 2006 — and almost 12 years later some of those are still running, albeit only just (due to modern technologies) and with reduced light output due to the age of the components.

As with film projectors, a regular maintenance and service will keep a digital projector running at its optimum for its age. It is important to ensure the light path is kept clean, this includes the mirrors, light filters, light engine and prism. As of today,  we can hazard a guess that at least 35% of the original projectors are still in service. But there does come a time when costs of replacement parts outweighs a replacement projector. With technology ever-improving, the cost to light a 7m wide screen 10 years ago, will be half this today. Today’s projectors can be smaller with different light sources and greater efficiency.

Nearly 12 years, on we have seen the Series 1 projector, Series 2 projector and now some manufacturers are releasing a Series 3 projector. Following the manufacturers’ product release schedule, projectors seem to evolve every six years. Of course, this does not mean a six-year-old machine is obsolete. It is not just projector manufacturers that affect the machine’s life. We have seen various servers in the mix. Today with the servers for Series 1 projectors supported by none but a few suppliers, exhibitors have limited options if a server fails. Is this like putting a Band Aid on and hoping it lasts? It is a solution for exhibitors not ready to change yet. A lot of exhibitors prefer a particular brand and, in some cases, are forced to change a working Series 1 projector to use a server brand they know and love.

It can be difficult and expensive to keep up with the fast pace of newer technologies and improvements. As an example, fingers were burnt when to run an HFR film you had to buy an IMB then storage and installation — there was little ROI on that one. But competition amongst exhibitors to be better than the next grows stronger. Once again it is a case of being forced into newer tech or being left behind. With new technologies breaking into the cinema market, does this cause exhibitors to hold off replacing equipment? If you wait for the equipment to come to market, see what the issues are, wait for improvements and upgrades and the cost to reduce before purchasing, the next technical advancement is already on its way.

So how long do digital projectors last? OK — that’s easy. We’ve installed these things for years. We can look up in our records what models we installed where and when and then check which are still running. Of course, it’s not so simple. We have single screen cinemas with a projector that runs 2-3 hours a day 7 days a week right through to projectors in multiplexes operating 12-14 hours a day 364 days a year which run with virtually no human input.


Size of Lamp fitted

A xenon lamp outputs half its wattage as heat and the rest of the energy is used up creating the light. So a 3000W xenon lamp outputs approximately 1500W of heat! Even with the best extraction system, that heat and light does cause damage over a long period of time and most of the wear and tear is to the reflector in the lamphouse — sometimes only 50mm away from the lamp itself and taking the full force of the xenon lamp.

In tests conducted by Mike Bradbury at Odeon Cinemas, he showed that the reflectivity of a lamphouse mirror can degrade by up to 25% over the life of the projector, meaning the projector that started life having lots of available light for the size of screen is now struggling to achieve the desired light level on screen.

Every part of the projector that has light either bouncing off it or passing through it will degrade over the life of  projector — some things can be simply cleaned to maximise the light reflected/transmitted, but eventually this will have less and less effect and the impact becomes more and more severe — as dust builds up in a light engine, the dust itself becomes hot and baked onto the prism surfaces. This stops the light transmission through the prism so the lamp needs to be run harder and harder to achieve the same light level.

Sufficient Ventilation

The most common source of projector ageing can be caused by too little or too much ventilation. Like all electrical equipment a digital projector and the xenon lamp inside it have ideal operating temperatures and when things get too hot (or too cold) then bad things happen. Electrical circuits bake together with the internal wiring harnesses inside a projector which then have the habit of failing at the most inopportune moment — typically just before the Saturday evening feature.

Plug-in circuit boards expand and contract when they get hot — and over a period of time will start to wear out the contact between the board and the socket it is plugged into. Things can also go wrong if the projector is cold — xenon lamps also like to be run at the right temperature. Too hot and they can become unstable or explode,  but we have also come across situations where too much ventilation is not good for the operating life of a xenon. Between 250 and 500 cubic feet per minute of ventilation depending on the lamp fitted is about right.

Did you know that most cinema projectors will not turn on if the ambient temperature in the projection room is below 10 degrees centigrade? We have projectors under service contract in Iceland and we know all about this!

Reliable Smooth Power

It goes without saying that a good clean electrical supply will ensure that a projector will run as reliably as possible. Sometimes a cinema is at the mercy of the capability of the local power grid and you just have to accept what you are given, but it is always worth considering fitting a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to run the electronic circuits in a projector which will protect the machine against some mains spikes or interference. but don’t forget to check the batteries in your UPS. They are most probably lead acid batteries and they have an operating lifetime of 2-3 years max. The last thing you want is to go off screen because the UPS batteries have failed — something that you installed to ensure the longevity of your projector! Run a test of your UPS every couple of months and if the system shuts down after a very short time then get someone in to look at the problem. A good, well specified, UPS should run the electronics of your projector and server system for at least 10 minutes.

Clean Air

Every projector and server has fans that are intended to pull cool air into the device and keep the internal components cool. Most of these devices have air filters on the outside to remove as much dust as possible on the way in but everything you can do to keep the dust levels in the room as low as possible will make the filters last as long as possible. Servers are just big computers and these devices don’t like getting hot either — a motherboard covered in dust will not last anywhere near as long as one that is nice and dust free.

Hours run

You would think that the overall life of a projector would be determined in most cases by the total hours the projector has been run —
not necessarily so. In common with most pieces of machinery, projectors tend to last the longest when they are used regularly, not run too hard (ie maximum sized lamp running at maximum current) and are serviced regularly to ensure they are as clean as possible (inside and out). There is no hard and fast rule to say projector X run in condition Y will last Z years. We know of some projectors approaching 10 years old that have been turned on 24/7 and running fine — others that have been only used for 3 shows a week are becoming problematic and unreliable after 5-6 years. The important things is to do as much as possible to get the best operating life out of the equipment you have.

Consider also the not-so-regular things that need changing in a projector. Every machine has a number of cooling fans (some 20+ fans!) and these need changing according to manufacturer’s recommendations. Some of these fans run all the time the projector is powered up and some only when the lamp is on. Sometimes the difference between the two run times can be very small — but sometimes the hours run and the lamp on times can be very different.

Regular Software updates 

These do not normally have a great effect on the operating life of the projector — they are mostly to do with the day-to-day operation — but it is still important that these updates are installed when issued by the manufacturer just to be on the safe side. It may be that there is better monitoring of temperatures within the projector or something similar.

Regular Maintenance

It is vitally important that your projector and server is maintained regularly to ensure that filters are cleaned/changed, coolant refreshed, and the internals of the projector are inspected to ensure that everything is working as it should be. You may have a projector that externally looks perfect but inside there are things going on that a maintenance visit will catch before a component fails. It is not simply the cost of replacement items when a projector goes off screen — it is the lost ticket revenue, concessions and reputation that often costs a lot more. Sometimes a projector is monitored by a remote NOC (Network Operating centre) and they can keep a remote eye on the status of your projector and server and hopefully will catch issues with your equipment before it becomes an off-screen event. There are also automatic monitoring systems that need no human intervention such as the Barco CineCare software package. This runs on a PC in the cinema and talks back to a central database which contacts the maintenance contractor if something goes out of tolerance with the equipment. We have had a number of situations where we contact a cinema and tell them of an issue with their projector and what we are doing to fix it before they are even aware of the issue themselves.

Server Operating hours

Every cinema server has a number of hard disc drives installed which provide the internal storage for adverts, trailers and features to be played back through the projector. Hard discs have a limited lifetime and these are often run 24/7 365 days per year — especially when we now have electronic content delivery systems that want to transfer feature films and other downloaded content across to the playout server overnight.

That having been said, most hard discs will be happiest when they are left running all the time. There is less strain on the motors to leave the discs running and less potential for damage to the read/write heads if these disc stays spinning, but when you find hard drives in servers with 75,000+ hours running time (8 years powered up!) then it is definitely time to start changing these. When hard drives this old start to fail, the end is nigh. They will start losing the ability to transfer data fast enough and then degrade very quickly. Most cinema systems have redundancy in them which allows for a single drive to fail completely without affecting playback — but when you have three drives all 8+ years old then it is likely that something catastrophic will happen  when you least expect it. You have been warned!

Number of Features played back

The life of a hard drive will also be determined to some extent by the amount of data read and written to it. In some cinemas where features are moved between screens depending on ticket sales, this can result in huge amounts of data being moved between servers in a short space of time. This can have a detrimental effect on the life of a drive.

So -after all this, what is the answer to how long your projector will last? Answer — it depends on what you have, how you run it  and what you want out of your projection system now and in the future. The important thing to note is that all DCI projectors will never become obsolete in terms of being able to play back DCI content. The Studios mandated in the early days of DCI that even a 10+ year old DCI compliant projector will be supplied with content by the Studios.

The more important consideration should be “does the projector do now what it used to do when it was new?”. What features or facilities would you like your current projector to do that can’t be achieved and how reliable is it?

Does it still do what it did when it was new? Most probably, but it might not be as bright as it used to be. If that’s not a problem and you can just turn up the current a bit then that’s fine. What new features or facilities would you like it to provide? More storage of feature films, HFR, HDR, HDCP support (most 6+ year old projectors do not have an HDMI connection and do not support  High Definition Copy Protection) so you cannot connect BluRay or Games consoles directly and have to downgrade to lower quality playback solutions.   



One of the biggest challenges to a cinema that currently owns a Series One projector is the availability of replacement servers that it can connect to. As of the middle of last year, if a Series One server breaks down and cannot be repaired then there are no new Series One compatible servers available for sale and the only available solution is second-hand servers that have been reclaimed from old installations.6+ year old servers have components in them that have most likely been out of production for 3+ years — such is the technological rate of change in the computer industry and that’s what series one servers are, big computers with a secure playback card mounted in them. Hard drives can be changed, power supplies swapped, but when it comes to motherboards and Raid controllers you are into a “make do and mend” situation with parts coming from other old servers.

Those with 10 year Virtual Print Fee contracts should be in luck — your equipment VPF supplier would have to provide you with a replacement if your VPF funded server fails under warranty.

Even if a projector/server is under warranty a breakdown is a serious situation — especially in a single screen cinema — the impact in terms of ticket sales, concession sales and reputation can be far greater than the cost of repair. We have a number of customers now who are replacing their projectors and purchasing new ones under 5 year lease plans to spread the cost — and these plans include warranty and service as part of the monthly payment.

This gives the cinema operator peace of mind, and the latest equipment to play back the features (and other non-DCI content) in the best possible way.

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