What Kind Of Projectors Do Movie Theaters Use And How Much Do They Cost?

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Like any other time, you step into the viewing room, and you take that first glance at the screen.

It’s inevitable to get excited; there is a sort of magic to this place. 

Anxious for the movie to start, you quickly walk up the stairs, make a left and squeeze in sideways through the people in their seats. You do it carefully though, dropping your extra-large popcorn and soda is not in your plans.

With almost trembling hands, you reach into your pocket for your ticket and check your seat number; it’s right! You sit and get comfy; the movie hasn’t begun. The ads haven’t even started playing yet; you take a look at the time. “What’s taking so long?” You think, and right then, the first ad comes on.

You let out a sigh of relief. You’ve been waiting for this one a long time. Suddenly, you feel an itch of curiosity, and without knowing why, you turn around and look up behind you.

And there is it, that mesmerizing bean of light that holds such mystery. Few people have been to the room this light comes from. And even though things have changed, you can’t help but imagine it’s one of those old projectors with two reels projecting the ads in front of you.

“The projection room,” you think. Such a mysterious and magical place. And you ask yourself, “how do they do it?”

Most of us have wondered about the same thing. The work that goes on inside a projection room is a mystery to even the most avid moviegoers (myself included, until recently).

Today, we will get into projectors, yes. As the machine responsible for movie playing, it deserves the most credit. But we will also talk about all the other pieces of equipment that make going to the movies a great experience, every time.

You will discover, like me, that the process of movie projecting is far more streamlined than you thought.

Inside a Projection Room

Without movies, there would be no projection rooms. So I guess that’s a good place to start.

How do movie theaters get movies?

In the old days, the rolls of movie film would be sent to theaters. Those rolls would then be loaded into the projector by running them on a reel, then through the projector, and finally projected onto the screen.

Nowadays, things are pretty different. Cinemas receive packages of data called DCP (Digital Cinema Packages), an encrypted collection of files (audio, video, and data streams) stored on a hard drive that movie theaters use to play the movies.

That’s right; movies come in hard drives. Cool, huh?

Additional to the hard drive, there is another part of the DCP called KDM (Key Delivery Message). Since movies come encrypted to cinemas, it’s necessary to have a file that can unlock the content for playback—that’s what KDM does. 

Content mastering facilities send this file to cinemas after they have received the movie. The KDM enables a single playback device to read the files contained in the DCP for a specific time (days, weeks, or months). And it can usually be downloaded from a public access link.

Yeah, film production companies take content security very seriously.

That playback device I mentioned is a computer/server commonly known as TMS. The Theater Management System is the heart of every movie theater. It’s essentially the software that controls the playback of all movies, ads, and trailers in the different rooms of a cinema.

The CPDs, ads, and trailers are all copied onto this server–which is several terabytes of storage space–that holds all the content playing in the cinema for the last couple of months.

Conveniently enough, the playback sequence is programmed with clockwork precision on the TMS—allowing for little to no human intervention for playing each movie. This ensures all movies, ads, and trailers play at an exact time, for a particular time, every day, without inconsistencies.

Each projection room in a movie theater counts with an independent server. These receive the content playing for that particular week from the main server. Also, they can control the lighting inside of each room, even the curtains.

As I said, pretty streamlined.

These independent servers or computers send out the video portion of the film to the projector—which is basically in charge of projecting the video onto the screen—and the audio to the Digital Cinema processor, a piece of equipment that enables playback of the audio of movie soundtracks.

This system can read a wide variety of formats and features 5.1 digital surround sound (as a minimum), and requires at least eight channels of input and output.

The sound is then run through an equalizer previously tuned by an audio technician according to the room’s space requirements and the equipment’s features, making for the best audio experience possible for the room.

I know what you’re thinking, “what about the projector?”

Easy, easy, I haven’t forgotten.

How a Movie Projector Works

Old Movie Projectors

Let’s make a quick stop through history and discover the technology that preceded modern digital projectors.

The good old 35mm movie projector is a stunning engineering accomplishment that managed to trick the human eye into seeing a moving image. Let’s discover how.

Movie film came in all sizes, from 8 mm used by home enthusiasts to 16 mm by schools to 35 mm for most feature films, and 70 mm popularly used for movies in the 60s. The bigger the film, the higher the resolution.

35 mm film projectors look like a big box with two prominent wheels coming out of it—but of course, you already know this. However, it’s not as simple as it looks.

The film is loaded onto the supply reel, and it’s then pulled off by the mechanism and threaded in between the lamp and the lens. Next, it’s run across the sound drum to be later rewound onto the take-up reel.

All clear so far? Good.

Inside the projector, there’s a potent lamp with a reflector behind it and a lens in front that reflects and concentrates the light. The light then goes through an aperture that allows it just enough space to shine through the moving film.

The light of the reflected images then passes through another lens that is adjusted to make the image sharp or blur, and then it’s projected onto the screen.

Not that complicated, right?

Well, there’s more to it.

If we were to just run the images continuously past the projector’s lamp, you would only see a blur of pictures on the screen—barely being able to tell what you’re seeing.

There are two mechanisms inside the projector that make the illusion of a moving picture possible. First, the shutter, two parallel arms connected by a small three-toothed metallic bar on one end that engages and disengages with the film while moving up and down.

The shutter stops the film for just enough time to avoid blur and then moves it down to transition to the other image. Nevertheless, this doesn’t quite do it.

That’s where the shuttle comes in.

The shuttle is a disc with up to 3 blades that block the light coming from the lamp while the next image transitions. This allows our eyes to experience a seamless, fast projection of one image right after the other—creating the illusion of a moving image.

And that’s the magic of movies!

Digital Projectors

Since digital projectors started being tried out at theaters in 1999, early film-playing projectors began declining in use. In 2013, an estimated 92% of theaters in the U.S. had switched to digital projectors.

And what a change it was! Projectors are a whole lot different now.

While its technology principles remain, the image is not projected from a film anymore but created digitally.

There are two dominant technologies in the world of projectors, Microchip projectors and LCD projectors.

Essentially, Microchip projectors use a powerful lamp that shines light through a prism (a light-refracting glass), which splits light into the three primary colors (red, blue, and green).

You might wonder why.

Simple, refracting light into the primary colors allows the projectors to create the broadest spectrum of colors possible—more than the human eye can see—when they’re later recombined to make the final image.

After being refracted through the prism, each color light is reflected onto a microchip containing more than a million hinged tiny mirrors that tilt on (when reflecting the light) or off (when partially reflecting light). The movement or tilt of the mirrors is controlled by the digital image signal that they receive.

The mechanics are similar to LCD projectors. They also use a powerful light source—more powerful than Microchip projectors, though—whose light is also refracted into red, green, and blue. But instead of being projected onto a micromirror, it’s filtered through an LCD that uses liquid crystals (controlled by a digital signal) to reflect or block the light, allowing it to project a monochromatic picture.

In the end, just like Microchip projects, the three monochromatic images are recombined to form the final image, which is then projected onto the screen.

How Much Does a Movie Projector Cost?

Before talking numbers, you must know that only a handful of companies are allowed to manufacture movie projectors. 

The four brands allowed to manufacture movie projectors are Sony, Christie, NEC, and Barco.

Wondering why?

Well, the reason is that companies need to comply with requirements established for digital cinema systems. The CDI (Digital Cinema Initiatives)—a consortium formed in 2002 by the top 6 movie studios— created these regulations to ensure standards of performance, reliability, and quality in movie theaters.

And not only that, but movie theater projectors also adhere to anti-piracy measures that support the copyright and licensing restrictions of the content being played on them.

I told you, these folks take their business seriously. But I won’t leave you hanging any longer…

Movie theaters can probably find a decent, refurbished projector at a price point of $10.000. New ones can range from $50.000 to $100.000. But top-of-the-line, all-bells-and-whistles projectors (such as IMAX projectors) can go up to $250.000.

And for those of you really into numbers:

The Cost of Starting a Movie Theater

As you can imagine, opening a movie theater is not cheap at all. There many different aspects that we should consider if we’re to estimate its cost.

Here are the most important:

  • Business registration fee
  • Licenses, permits, and other legal expenses
  • Opening marketing and promotion expenses
  • Hiring a business consultant to make a business plan
  • Costs of insurance (worker’s compensation, theft, etc.)
  • Cost of leasing a facility
  • Construction and remodeling of the movie theater
  • Cinema equipment and gadgets
  • Operational costs for the first few months
  • Installation of a security system
  • Store equipment
  • Furniture
  • Cost of creating and hosting a website

Building and setting up a standard, full-service, modern movie theater in the United Stated oscillates $900.000. Of course, prices will vary depending on location, size of the facilities, the number of viewing rooms, and other factors.

Now you know where your ticket money is going.