Rolling out digital signage across a 1,000-screen, 20-state movie theater chain is not a small project, nor is it necessarily an easy one. But an enterprise-level rollout of that magnitude can be made as easy as possible if it's done efficiently — and it can provide key lessons that can make it even easier for other potential enterprise-class digital signage deployers in the future.
Rave Cinemas LLC, the fifth-largest cinema circuit by box office gross and number of screens in the U.S., and digital signage firm Real Digital Media today announced a strategic initiative to deploy digital signage throughout the Rave theater chain.
The network has been operating since early 2011, and was first deployed at Dallas-based Rave's North East Mall 18 location in Hurst, Texas, an 18-auditorium movie theater. Rave has since expanded the rollout of its digital signage network across the 66-location Rave circuit, with the latest deployment at the Las Vegas Town Square 18 location. (This installation includes more than 65 displays serving several different use cases, and will be featured during the Digital Signage Guided Installation Tour on Tuesday, March 6, at the upcoming Digital Signage Expo.)
The Rave Cinemas network deploys networked digital displays in the box office and on concession stand menu boards. The digital signage network will also be employed for theater wayfinding, auditorium marquees and for coming attraction promotions. All theater locations will be programmed and monitored from Rave's Dallas headquarters using Real Digital Media's NEOCAST Media Server management software. The Web-based application monitors network health and performance and communicates content and playlist instructions to the networked players powering the displays. Rave also is using Real Digital Media's NEOCAST Media Player Z to power the content showcased across the network, including Silverlight applications designed to provide theater visitors with real-time information regarding showtimes, ticket availability, concession items and pricing, as well as wayfinding.
During a telephone interview today, Rave Cinemas Director of Systems Development Bill Budwitz talked to Digital Signage Today about the initiative, and provided some important insights into the process.
While Rave has had digital signage in its theaters, it has up till now been a bit of "a hodgepodge," Budwitz said, of different platforms from different vendors, as well as "home-cooked," PC-based digital signage systems — which he called "difficult to manage, difficult to maintain, difficult to update and very hands-on."
When Budwitz came aboard at Rave, he was challenged to replace the "hodgepodge" system with a robust, scalable, enterprise-level system, a process he started about a year-and-a-half ago. His first goal was to replace all the various component pieces with one digital signage platform "that's scalable and manageable and easy to use," he said, and the Real Digital Media solution was the clear favorite of his team after a six-month evaluation process — he called it "a hands-down, no-brainer for us."
But the Rave rollout provides several important lessons for potential enterprise-level digital signage deployers, whether in the movie theater business or the grocery chain business.
A unified front is better:
The benefits of going to a single-source platform are obvious: having a unified interface; having only one format and entry point for content; and being able to group the players and content, Budwitz said. For instance, Rave system admins can tag content to go out to all theaters with restaurants, or all theaters that serve alcohol, or all theaters playing a certain movie on certain days.
"It just goes — boom! done — and we don't have to worry about it," he said. "It just saves us a tremendous amount of time and a tremendous amount of management."
The system, though, does also allow for hyperlocal individualized content distribution. Rave recently opened a large theater in Los Angeles called the Baldwin Hills, that serves a strongly minority community, and which recently hosted a Pan-African Film Festival, he said.
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"So we pushed out trailers specific to that film festival just to that theater, so they got very localized, very event-driven content."
With respect to hardware, Rave is going chain-wide in replacing its PC-based systems with Real Digital Media digital signage players for playback; trying to incorporate as much as possible its existing digital signage displays; and then from a transmission standpoint, using Magenta Research products "as the backbone for transmitting all the video, audio and serial signals from the players out to the presentation points."
And that last move, he said, has "blown away" both implementation partner Christie Digital and Real Digital Media.
Uniformity is easier — and cheaper — in the long run:
The philosophy Budwitz said drove his decisions on digital signage is simple: "We've got to make this bulletproof; we've got to make this enterprise; we're going to use the best technology; and everything is going to be home run to a server room, because I don't want every theater to say 'Where's this player? Where's this box?'"
All the digital signage systems chain-wide are going to be in the same place, with the same setup, he said.
"That way, we always know where it is: It's always back in the server room with a really nice setup and a real nice patch panel that's well labeled, so when it's time to support and make changes, we're not scrambling to figure out where everything is at. It's always in that same room, well labeled, easily moved and configured."
And that approach has earned Rave kudos from its digital signage partners, he said.
"And I've said, 'Yeah, we're maybe spending more money than other people do, but in the end it's going to save us money because we're going to spend less time supporting and scrambling around our facility looking for boxes, players, transmission equipment, because it's always in the same place.'"
Find a partner, not just a seller:
Budwitz's main piece of advice for deployers, he said, is to find a vendor that not only has a good product but that it willing to listen to them and to their needs. Rave has always been a bit ahead of the game, tech-wise, so having a partner that would work with the company's tech admins was paramount.
For example, after years of working with digital signage systems in past jobs, Budwitz wanted to use Silverlight instead of "memory-intensive" and "flaky" Flash. Real Digital Media was quick to provide Silverlight versions of its players, and within weeks Rave had Silverlight up and running, he said. "And now the last challenge I gave them, two weeks ago, is I want to move from Silverlight to HTML5, and two days later I had a player in my office that had the kernel for HTML5 loaded on it."
Dynamic beats static:
And for any theaters out there that do still use static signage? It's probably time for a change, Budwitz said.
"Obviously, with static signage you have one message and one message only," he said. "And if you ever need to change that message, you've got to print, ship, hang, bang and then hopefully they do it in the right time zones: If you need it up by Thursday and taken down by next Friday? Well, if the manager doesn't do that you missed your opportunity."
On the other hand, digital signage gives deployers the ability to distribute content, schedule it and make it available "so when it's needed it's there and it's relevant," he said.
"And then we can also multipurpose those displays," he said. "It's not just one piece of content; we can use it to advertise different events, different concession items, different limited time offers and upcoming events, so we get multi-use out of our signage."
Digital signage and the movies:
Real Digital Media CEO Ken Goldberg said in an email that digital signage is "a great match" with the cinema environment, because of the dynamic and quickly-changing nature of the cinema world itself. Theaters have to be fluid and able to adapt to changing features, show times, the constant onslaught of coming attractions, the fluidity of auditorium statuses and ticket availability, and more, he said.
"The really unique thing about the Rave install is the variety of use cases and the integration of data from theater systems to keep the various signs up-to-date and relevant," Goldberg said. "For example, Rave has made coming attraction posters more attractive by embedding trailers in the posters. Box office and wayfinding signs provide the status of each auditorium. Concession menu boards promote high-margin and high-velocity items at the right times."
Rave's pervasive use of digital signage in multiple formats is "totally in sync with Rave's immersive digital cinema experience," he said.
"They want people thinking about the movies and talking about the movies while they are at the movies. That builds engagement and loyalty, and this initiative places them at the forefront of innovation among all cinema operators in the U.S."
And while the cinema environment is no picnic, neither is the digital signage world, which makes finding the right partners a key ingredient to success, Budwitz said.
"So the bottom line is, find a vendor who is flexible and willing to work with you on your needs, because it's a challenging environment, with all the changing codecs and video drivers and O/S versions, and content and content compressions that are constantly changing," he said. "You need someone who is willing to adapt and continue to push the technology."
Photos courtesy of Jeff Green Photography.
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