Journalist Chris Heal interviewed Harkness Screens CEO, Mark Ashcroft for the first article in this unique series, understanding the role of a Global CEO.
CH: Mark, you have had a busy last couple of months! Which country shall we begin discussing because there are so many interesting places which you have been to recently?
MA: I think, as ever, when you travel and meet customers, you get a whole new perception on what is bothering them, what’s exciting them, where they see the opportunities and where they see the threats. That differs from country to country. I have been able to take in the US, China, France, Spain, the UK and Ireland and it has been an interesting set of customer visits and meetings.
In terms of getting out there and being in the field, it is really important. There is a lot of talk about the next generation of laser projectors. That’s significant investment for cinema operators. They want to make sure they get their combination of screen and projector correct which means we need to get out there to see where the opportunities are to support our customers to make them successful.
CH: Is that why it is so important for you and Harkness to travel because at the end of the day, you want to learn about the best technology to continue being the leaders in your field?
MA: These different countries are at different stages in their development. You can say the US and Europe are quite mature cinema markets whereas India and China are rapidly growing both in numbers, but also, in the deployment of new technology.
CH: Laser projectors in the industry continue to evolve. What are the key learnings you have taken away from your time travelling to different parts of the globe?
MA: As new laser projectors are introduced, there are a number of key players around the world that want to be early adopters of that new technology and it is important to hear their first hand experience.
There has been an enormous number of new laser projectors models in a very short period of time, probably four years. Each one of those new projectors models has something different about it. That difference may or may not impact the quality of the image on the screen. Certainly, the intent is that it is going to be a brighter, more vivid experience, but there is always the danger that with laser projectors, you can have this technical phenomena of ‘speckle’.
CH: Can you describe why that can have such an impact, Mark?
MA: It can be really distracting! Do movie-goers instantly see ‘speckle?’ Probably not. Do we within the industry see it? Very often we do. What is interesting when you do travel in the field to see customers, you see them actually getting drawn towards the screen as they try to understand ‘speckle’.
Five or 10 years ago, we would have sat back 15 meters from the screen and looked at the screen. We wouldn’t have got within six inches of the screen, but that’s what ‘speckle’ does. It draws you in as an industry professional because you want to understand it and see if the screen is actually contributing to it.
It can actually also get people touching the screen too! Again, for many years, we would absolutely try and avoid any sort of hand print, even if it couldn’t be seen. ‘Speckle’ is a new aspect and one we have got to help our customers with.
CH: What other key learnings have you been able to take away when it comes to screen surfaces?
MA: With laser projectors, it is a very powerful, bright light. The screens under that white light can be very different than how we may have looked at screens in the past. There is a requirement for us to work with our individual customers to understand exactly what they want with the content on the screen, but also what they want when that screen is under white light or house lights.
It is important to them that cosmetically, that looks good. It is important that the move-goer walks into an auditorium and understands the scale and the impact of the big screen. We have got to ensure that the screen looks good straight out of the packing and looks great when the content is on there.
CH: From an outsider looking in, 3D is becoming more popular in some markets and less in others, so what have you been able to learn about this?
MA: What’s been interesting is that, again, 3D system producers are always looking at ways to get more light on to the screen. Historically, 3D systems were considered to be very positive. Increasingly, the 3D systems manufacturers are developing new systems to look at ways to stop reflections in the auditorium, for example.
I also think the 3D system producers have built some really strong relationships with the laser projection manufacturers. When you combine the laser projector and the 3D system projector with one of our optimized screens, it is a very powerful combination. As you say, 3D is going from strength to strength in China but easing off in the USA.
CH: And finally Mark, what has been a clear positive for you because doing some research, the feedback you guys get on your screen surfaces continues to grow?
MA: I have been very impressed. We put a Clarus 170 water-based screen into the Colosseum at Caesars Palace for Cinemacon at the start of April this year. When you look at the excitement surroundings the premieres the major new movies had around that time and the feedback we got about the screen itself, that was massively encouraging. We have deployed that Clarus technology in LA and it was used by Disney for the LA premiere of Avengers: End Game. It was very widely applauded for superb presentation.
Go forward a couple of months, and the Clarus technology was being used at CineEurope in Barcelona which also had very positive feedback from industry professionals. The industry is constantly looking at Harkness Screens to stay ahead of the technology curve. The introduction of Perlux HiWhite in the last six to nine months has shown that a screen that can be introduced, can give 40 per cent greater brightness on the surface and we are looking to emulate this in current R&D projects. We are constantly looking at ways to optimise presentation.
Our technology is best described as ‘thin film’. The ‘thin film’ technology is well established in the world of automotive and optics. We have adopted ‘thin film’ surface coatings to give greater light uniformity to allow for speckle mitigation. There are also lots of other moving parts and you have to manage them also. What you discover is that you do multiple trips with multiple customers and not one size fits all. Customers need help in different areas and that is one of the things getting out on the road allows. It allows you to establish how we can support customer success and, then, feedback to the teams around the Harkness world.