The Big Growth of Small Cinema

The latest generation of cinema projectors are enabling new forms of small-scale projection venues. Patrick von Sychowski talks to the major vendors about what this means.


Digital cinema projection has enabled the creation of high-quality screening venues in spaces that would have been impossible for 35mm film projectors. Introduction of laser light source projectors in particular means these can be installed where maintenance access isn’t as critical. These developments have revolutionised both cinema and non-cinema venues, opening up new possibilities and improving presentations that would previously have relied on standard LCD or sophisticated home cinema projectors. 

The impact has been felt in several markets: post-production; bijou screens and mini-plexes; in specialised venues such as hotels; high-end home theatres and finally in so-called private cinemas (a.k.a. micro cinemas). The last of these is a major trend in the world’s largest cinema market by screen count, China, where private cinema installations run into tens of thousands screens [see Cinema Technology, December 2017]. While these have traditionally not shown first-run film or required DCI-grade equipment, there is a push for private cinemas to have this capability as the concept is tested outside China. 

On the following pages, we talk to the four projector manufacturers that supply DCI-grade projectors to a variety of venues other than just cinemas. It is worth remembering that the 2K version of Samsung’s Onyx Cinema LED screen, which does away with projectors, is already installed in two post-houses in Los Angeles (Roundabout) and Paris (Eclair). Onyx can also work as a 2.5m cinema screen in a small cinema auditorium — though only if money is no object. 


High-End Home Theatre

Hollywood’s A-list, Russian oligarchs and top football players can now have a high-end cinema with the same spec as your local multiplex. While access to first-run content depends on how well connected you are to distributors (Hollywood stars have the Bel Air Circuit), exclusive services from the likes of Bel Air Cinema and IMAX offer new releases. A more everyday option is to sign up to Netflix and Curzon On Demand for new films with an art-house flavour. 


For high-end home theatres, Barco Residential offers “a full range of dedicated high-end home theatre projectors, up to and including DCI-compliant and 6P RGB laser models,” says Barco’s senior member of the product management team Tom Bert. “These are delivered through a specialised channel of residential custom integrators,” which can range from general A/V installation companies to more specialist operators like Bel Air Cinema which offers DCI content for private clients both on land and sea ( The laser technology that is at the heart of these latest cinema projectors is also filtering down to more regular home cinema projectors, such as the NEC P502HL-2.

Cinema projectors from Sony haven’t just found their way into luxury homes, reveals Oliver Pasch, sales director, digital cinema Europe. “Our standard DCI lamp and laser projectors are installed in private home cinemas belonging to high-net-worth individuals, with a number being installed on superyachts. With time at a premium, these customers are looking for the ultimate image quality during precious down time.” 

At the highest-end there is Sony’s collaboration with IMAX on ultra-high home cinema. “IMAX Private Theatre has installed Sony SXRD dual projection systems (customised to IMAX, non-DCI-compliant model) to provide 4K, high-contrast image quality for 2D and no compromise 3D free from triple flash artefacts,” Pasch reveals. IMAX has two showrooms in the US, one in UAE, three in China and one which is under construction in India. That gives an indication of where the demand is. 

Unsurprisingly, A-list celebrities do not generally advertise their home cinemas — unless selling multi-million dollar pads — but there are notable exceptions. Both director Michael Bay (“Transformers”) and the producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) have installed Barco. “I’ve worked with Barco for 15 years, it’s my one and only projector,” said Bay, who selected Barco’s DP4K-23B ultra-bright 4K DLP® Alchemy Cinema projector, in his words, because, “It is simply the best.” But down the road in Bel Air “Steven Spielberg has purchased two Christie TrueLaser RGB projectors for his personal use,” reveals Christie’s senior product manager Brian Claypool. No doubt they compare projectors when they visit each other’s homes. 


Post Production

Post houses have needed digital cinema projectors since the roll-out began in 1999, in order to grade, master and QC DCDMs and DCPs to the standards they will be shown in on the big screens. These no longer require their own projection room, but can now be located on small space in the back or even suspended from a box in the ceiling. 

“For post-production and review room facilities, Barco has long offered a dedicated model, based on the broader DCI-compliant portfolio,” says Tom Bert. “The current model is the DP4K-P and it has both custom hardware and software modules to serve the specific needs of this market.” These feature in installations such as Russia’s Mosfilm, which installed the 4K DP4K-P with the help of integrator Kinofilm. 

Emphasizing the history and relations Christie has had with Hollywood, Brian Claypool notes that “post-production facilities can be considered specialised screening rooms —and world-leading directors, including James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg own or use facilities with Christie projectors.” 

Recent Christie post-production installations include Canadore College Post Production Theatre in in North Bay, Ontario, which has both CP4220 Digital Cinema projector and Dolby-certified Christie Vive Audio sound system with 41 surround sound speakers delivering 70,000 watts for Dolby Artmos. In New Zealand, the Auckland post-production house, Department of Post, recently installed Christie’s new CP4325-RGB by HOYTS Cinema Technology Group, which offer service and support to exhibition and post-production industries in Australian and New Zealand.

According to Claypool, “Christie has more projectors installed in private screening rooms than any other cinema technology company. We also expect these systems to be some of the first to be replaced during a “refresh” cycle which we expect to be starting in the course of the
next 24 months.”


Boutique Cinemas & Hotels

For purists that despaired at single screens being sub-divided into cramped miniplexes, laser projection has enabled even smaller spaces to host first-run screens. Fortunately this doesn’t just mean repurposed “Screen 9” broom cupboards, but some innovative cinema concepts. In addition, it has seen a growth in high-end hotels with dedicated cinemas, often in the basement.

Arguably the first new cinema to take advantage of the architectural opportunities a new generation of small projectors offer was the Curzon Victoria [see CT, December 2018]. At the Curzon Bloomsbury (formerly The Renoir), designed by Takero Shimazaki Architects, four screens grew to six, including a dedicated screen for documentaries.

More recently the Art Deco Everyman Crystal Palace opened in late 2018, with the two spaces under the former balcony served by NEC projectors mounted in ceiling boxes. NEC claims to offer two of the smallest DCI projectors: the NC1000 and NC1201L. Alain Chamaillard, head of cinema EMEA and CIS for NEC, says that “these models are suitable for very small screens where installation does not allow for air extraction. The longevity of the NC1201L Laser Phosphor system means the exhibitor only needs to access the projector for simple filter cleaning.”

Alain sees this as a major impact on the potential for new cinema venues. “The introduction of these models has already enabled exhibitors to open additional small screens in areas they never believed possible in the past.”

Luxury hotels increasingly see a dedicated cinema room as a USP, whether for special screenings for private parties or for corporate hire. In London, hotels such as the Courthouse, the Mayfair, the W London Leicester Square and the Soho Hotel regularly host industry screenings (see “A Boutique Desination, page 76). One Aldwych Hotel has gone further with its Film & Fizz and Live at One screenings open to hotel guests and the public, where £55 buys you a three-course meal and a film – with fizz. 

The Mondrian London at Sea Containers has partnered with Curzon for the Curzon Mondrian London, open to the public and guests at weekends. This trend is equally strong in emerging markets, with the Yashan International Resort Hotel in Ganzhou, selecting Christie solutions for its VIP Theater — the first in China to be fitted Christie Vive Audio.



Private and micro cinemas

In China, so-called private cinemas (a.k.a micro cinemas) are believed to have overtaken regular screens in number with over 10,000 venues in operation. While some offer low-end home-cinema, the high end is sophisticated and has the attention of major projector manufacturers.

Sony has gone after this market hard. “We identified the rapid growth of micro cinemas in China, but also identified that smaller projectors in the market were limited to 2K, HD-equivalent resolution at lower contrast,”  notes Oliver Pasch, “So, we developed the SRX-R608 specifically to bring 4K, ultra-high contrast image quality to the small screens associated with micro cinema. We have concentrated our launch on China where the micro cinema market is the biggest and have just started shipping the first systems.”

According to Pasch, “There are large opportunities for micro cinema in China. We are assuming it is spreading to non-China market as well.” Already Emagine Entertainment in Michigan, US, has set up a type of micro-cinema with a dozen seats where customers can pause the film, adjust the volume and more. Indeed, manufacturers such as Cinemeccanica have also developed special solutions for the micro-cinema market.


Small cinemas: a market getting bigger? 

The market for small projectors will not overtake regular cinema installations either in numbers or revenue any time soon — but they are certainly becoming increasingly important niches for projector manufacturers.

“The potential return is not measured by Christie in terms of revenue. It’s not a large market, but besides being a prestigious market, it is also a knowledgeable one,” say Claypool about specialised screening rooms, particularly those of Hollywood talent. “So the more relations we have with the studios and their creatives, the more feedback we get into our product-development process, which translates to better products for mainstream exhibitors that can best present the stories that these creative luminaries weave.”

Whether the experience is shared by a dozen or several hundred people, the ‘big screen’ experience is thus defined by the quality of the sound and image presentation, rather than the auditorium metrics. With new projectors opening up the opportunities for a new type of space, so it too creates the possibility of showing more varied types of content and cultivating new audiences. Thinking small in terms of technology can thus be a new way of thinking big in terms of cinema.