Events: New horizons for the big screen: UKCA Conference, London

How often have we all heard that it is technology that is transformational in the cinema-going experience? And how often has that statement been directed exclusively to sound and vision technologies? In an attempt to take the discussion beyond the auditorium, the UK Cinema Association’s (UKCA) annual conference in March saw nearly 400 professionals from across the industry gather to discuss the broader subject. The event was held over two days in a fitting venue: Vue Westfield, a state-
of-the-art 20-screen multiplex seating  nearly 3,000 cinemagoers in the heart of Westfield Shepherd’s Bush, a 2.6million square foot megalith to urban regeneration — and current holder of the title “Europe’s largest shopping centre”.

With the main theme of the conference focused on technology, entitled “TECH: New horizons for the big screen experience”, the event was held in partnership with the Cinema Technology Community (CTC). The organisers’ aim was to bring clarity to many of the areas of innovation and explore challenges and opportunities they represent, including those to the cinema-going public.

The conference looked into areas including ticketing, signage and retail that all form a critical part of the customer journey. To give a rounded view, the majority of the panel sessions had representatives from exhibitors as well as technology suppliers.

You’ve got technology? One of the primary sessions centred around Cinema Technology and the Audience. It focused on the truism that, no matter how amazing the technology deployed may be, the majority of the audience doesn’t really care about it. Ruth Hinton from Vue Entertainment referred to this as the MacGuffin: the technological golden goose competing tech providers all clamour for, without appreciating that audiences don’t necessarily value or perceive the difference between a regular egg and a golden one.

Ruth’s presentation suggested that what audiences really care about kicks off with the Great Expectation (being inspired to see something on the big screen at a convenient time and in a convenient location), the Big Screen Moment (great sound and picture, in comfortable seats, with enjoyable snacks and drinks and no distractions), then the Afterglow (the memory of how great it was to come to the cinema and to be engrossed in something to the exclusion of the outside world). So, while the audience may not recognise it, in all of these interactions there is the potential for technology to improve the experience.

Making cinema customer-centric is a key focus for exhibitors like Vue, and this in turn marries up to
the application of customer-centric cinema technology. As Ruth explained, for users accessing such technology as the Uber app, the experience is just a straightforward, seamless one — no need to think about the technology, it is a case of tapping on your phone and a car arrives to pick you up. The same will be true of the cinema. As Ruth explained, “People don’t care about your technology. They don’t need to”. 

What is premium?
Graham Lodge, managing director of the equipment supplier and installer Sound Associates gave an entertaining cake-themed presentation on the concept of ‘Premium Experiences’ in large and luxury formats, highlighting what that actually means, how they work, the challenges and opportunities they present to cinemas and the evidence for audience demand (in effect, how much call is there for cherries on top of the “standard”). It was a timely presentation since the CTC also launched its new guide to Premium Large Formats at the event. The new 40-page guide for exhibitors summarises many of the large and luxury formats around the world.


At the end of the day…
At any conference, delegates take away different outcomes, gleaning what is of relevance to their situation or, in this case, their cinema. There was plenty of discussion and the presenters were engaging and informative. They offered a range of insight around the core subject of technology. Crucially, major themes included the fact that owners of smaller cinemas will make investment decisions as they need to and not worry about it, and that there are ways of building and operating cinemas in a way that is friendly to the environment, whatever their scale.


What else was on the agenda?

Skills for technology: The industry faces an ongoing challenge in ensuring staff have the skills to manage rapid technological innovation. In this session the CTC’s Paul Wilmott (from the independent Saffron Screen in Essex) and Gareth Ellis-Unwin, from ScreenSkills — the industry-led skills body for the UK’s screen-based creative industries — provided details on how cinemas can develop the skills required to manage technological change.

Technology-assisted lobby design:
Understanding how a building performs can have positive effect on profitability and the experience the cinema-goer receives. In this session, CTC’s president and VP of marketing at Harkness Screens, Richard Mitchell, showed the potential of simulation and modelling technologies available today that can optimise customer journeys through buildings, helping to understand how to keep customers safe, where best to place signage and how to design concession spaces to minimise queues.

Technology for accessibility:
There has been a growth in recent years in the use of assistive technology, making cinemas more accessible to disabled customers. But key challenges remain; in 2018 the UKCA launched its Technology Challenge Fund, inviting proposals for viable ‘closed caption’ solutions for the hard of hearing. Three short- listed applicants (National Theatre, Screen Language and Greta & Starks) presented their take on solutions that could provide more accessibility to disabled cinemagoers.


About Peter Knight

Peter Knight is the Commissioning Editor for the Cinema Technology Magazine, along with the Managing Editor for the Mad Cornish Projectionist website. He is still a working projectionist and AV technician with an interest in all things projected both in traditional cinema and elsewhere too. Peter has been running his own business since 2017.

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