I recently sat down with Jim McGall, Director of Sales, Wolf Cinema, to talk about their early beginnings, the challenges of integrating UHD/4K sources and displays throughout the house and the Wolf Cinema build-to-order philosophy. Part 1
Maureen Jenson: This is the 10th Year anniversary of Wolf Cinema. Congratulations to all involved! Please give our readers a brief 10-year history.
Jim McGall: Wolf Cinema was founded by parent company SUMIKO in January 2008, and we released our first home cinema projector nine months later. SUMIKO had been in business since 1973, with stable ownership [general partners Donald Brody and John Hunter managed it since 1995]. Sumiko was well known for their focus on sonic excellence, their dealer education programs [very well known throughout the industry], and their complete dedication to the independent audio retail specialist. High performance video was an untapped opportunity for the company, and thus Wolf Cinema was launched.
Wolf Cinema came into being due to the major changes going on within industry-leading Runco Corporation. When Runco was being acquired by Planar Corporation, a number of the senior Runco engineers wanted to find a new home for their talents. They had the know-how to develop superior imaging solutions that didn’t fail over time, as did many similar products of the day. Wolf Cinema is the result of those efforts.
Our company has always been positioned at the pinnacle of the front projection video market. We deliver units that produce some of the finest images available anywhere. We are known for providing Tier One pre- and post-sale service and support, so that our dealers meet or exceed their customers’ wishes. We have succeeded in spite of launching in one of the toughest economies in recent memory, and we continue to expand with an exciting array of new products every year.
In 2011 Wolf Cinema split off from SUMIKO and is now a wholly-owned, separate company still operated by its founders in Berkeley, CA.
MJ: Wow, that is quite a history. Tell our readers about your current product lineup?
JM: Let’s return to the beginning once again, in order to give you a more complete picture. In 2008 we launched with a xenon illuminated three-chip DLP platform, housed in a chassis specifically designed to meet the needs of the custom integrator. Xenon-based projectors are very high heat producers; back then no one had yet solved the thermal challenges when installing these units in a home environment. Our team did so and the first Reference Projectors were born.
Our current designs still pay homage to those early projectors. Our team’s expertise lies not only in imaging fidelity – all our projectors cast amazing pictures – but also in the special attention paid to the thermal dynamics within each projector.
Today we sell 20 projectors starting at an entry price point of just $2,995. This assortment includes 7 UHD/4K video projectors in our Theater Extreme 4K (TXF) series, 5 editions in our SDC line up of custom installation solutions, and 8 projectors in our commercial/business series, known as PRO.
Our team actively collaborates with leading engineering groups around the world, working to implement some of the latest imaging technologies – from DLP® light engine cores developed by Texas Instruments, to our long-standing affiliation with D-ILA™ [Direct Drive Image Light Amplifiers] chip sets, to custom optics packages that solve a variety of projector placement problems, to advanced video processing technologies that help us create that special Wolf Cinema image – we’re constantly striving to deliver the Wolf Cinema promise of filmic imagery from every projector.
MJ: How are these products meeting the needs of today’s custom integrator?
JM: As a custom solutions provider, we work closely with our dealers to provide them with the most reliable guidance for their projects. We help walk them through the various installation challenges – not only for home theaters, but also for commercial and business installations, schools, house of worship venues – providing them with proven data points so they can achieve the very best image possible within a given budget, the desired screen size and surface material in use.
One of the more recent challenges has been the integration of UHD/4K sources and displays throughout the house. Special cabling is required to transport those large digital files, and for a number of years now we’ve become a ‘cable testing’ company. As a result, we have become quite knowledgeable about the various brands and types of cables that work repeatedly over long distances. For most installations these days we are recommending fiber optic HDMI cabling: the costs are reasonable and very long runs can be achieved, maintaining the 4K signal integrity from source to display.
MJ: Where are you currently in the marketplace?
JM: We work with approximately 220 dealers in North America, plus we provide our solutions via in-country distribution partners in 28 countries around the world.
MJ: What do you do that is special to support your dealers in a crowded space?
JM: I’d have to say the first and foremost objective of our company is to design and build products that work … and reliably so over time. We pay a great deal of attention to the thermal challenges within each projector. We put our designs through a battery of tests to ensure our units run as cool as possible. This extensive testing process reduces failure rates dramatically, which in turn lowers the stress and strain on all parties with regard to future service issues.
In our day-to-day operations, we share our decades of video expertise so our dealers can provide the very best imaging solution possible. Every day we serve as the “video experts” behind the scenes for our custom installation specialists. We provide a wealth of technical information during the early design phases. We provide in-depth calculations as to the expected peak white performance on a given screen surface, exactly what can be achieved with respect to the desired angles of view for the client’s theater, match the projector’s optics to the desired throw distance, determine the available offset numbers, and more. Our team has advised on literally thousands of projects, so we know exactly what works to make this or that projector look its best in a home or business environment. This attention to detail is very much appreciated by our dealers and international partners.
We also ship our projectors calibrated to industry standard screen surfaces – and upon request, our team can provide custom calibration work to the exact screen surface in use. Pull any Wolf projector out of the box, and I’d say we’ve got it right to about 98 percent: color accurate, near perfect panel alignment, linear throughout the gray scale. Most of the time our dealers make small adjustments to peak white and black levels, resulting in a stellar video picture.
Finally – it’s not well known that we build every projection system to-order. We incorporate special optics, custom video algorithms, stable and rugged chassis designs that increase reliability in the most challenging home and commercial environments – even sending one of our technical support experts to a job site to assist with some of the most complex installation challenges imaginable.
Maureen Jenson: I have heard you say, that you think there are some misconceptions about Wolf projectors in the marketplace…what are they?
Jim McGall: There are a couple. Some folks think that all we make are ultra expensive projectors. That might have been true back during our launch phase: 10 years ago our least expensive projector was in the $50K+ range.
However, about 6 years ago we began to release a number of solutions at more competitive price points. The SDC-15 has been one of our top selling units for years, and the rich feature content and UHD/4K imaging continues to justify its $15,000 North American retail selling price. Today our line-up is quite extensive, with great imaging solutions that fit just about every budget. Currently our assortment starts at just $2,995 and a number of our most popular units are sold in the $5-10K price range. Our partners consider such solutions to be ‘best in class’.
I think the second general misconception about our company is that we are wedded to one technology, only one OEM partner. We are far more diverse than that. We work with the engineering folks at JVC, Kenwood, Coretronics/Optoma, Lumagen, Christie Digital, Chi-lin, and many more. We think we have some of the best engineering resources in the world behind our offerings, and our continued success is in part based on those relationships.
MJ: Do you have any offerings for the commercial space? Are you contemplating any?
JM: Sure – as we’ve mentioned, our PRO series offers solutions for small to medium sized commercial projects. One of our dealers in Australia recently completed a very elaborate House of Worship installation using two of our PRO-series ultra-short-throw projectors. The video screen, projector and sound reinforcement gear were all pre-assembled in their facility onto a custom framework, tested thoroughly, then carried into the church for final installation.
MJ: Distribution is so important for projectors such as Wolf. What changes and or additions to distribution have you made?
JM: For years we only sold products direct to the CI specialist. That business model has been proven to work successfully for us, and our dealers appreciate the service we provide, and the market exclusivity that comes with our brand.
Today our PRO series can be sold through authorized regional distribution partners. It’s a win-win when a dealer can walk into their local stocking distributor, and walk out with a Wolf Cinema projector to install for their clients that very same day.
MJ: I believe you have said that integrators have to pay more attention to the business and sales side and not get too technical with their customers…can you explain where you think integrators go wrong?
JM: I don’t necessarily think integrators “go wrong” in their business approaches, but I do think there is room to improve how we as an industry communicate the amazing benefits of two-piece systems.
One part of this is something that I’ve been concerned with for some time: Projector professionals know their respective products, the various screen sales gurus know theirs. But it’s rare that one person or group knows both technologies in depth. How to take a projector and match it up to a specific screen type, in a given environment, and achieve what I call the “OMG Video” – imagery that consistently knock your socks off. Very few people understand the complexity and nuances of a high performance video system in total.
Audio specialists get it – they understand how to match excellent speakers, high performance cabling, amplification, processing and more. They work diligently to make their audio system sound its very best. I can count on one hand those dealers that are ‘expert’ at taking the same approach to their video system integrations. In comparison, scant attention is paid to how the video components might interact with each other – the source gear, video cabling and display.
The other concern I have – well, let’s simply call it the “art” of selling. Too many times I hear of dealers/integrators taking the path of least resistance. Their customer wanted projector Brand X, let’s give them Brand X – even though there might be a significantly better performing Wolf Cinema solution available, or an option from our company that contributes significantly more to their bottom line.
As marketing has proven, a BMW is a great car that gets its occupants from point A to point B. But an M-Series makes the A to B trip breathtaking. This same comparison can be made between an inexpensive projector and a Wolf Cinema projector. Do you think the integrators are adept at making these types of comparisons to their customers succinctly?
That’s the precise analogy for what we do – our CI partners use very similar descriptions when discussing our company and our product offerings: Wolf Cinema is a specialist company that brings deep video knowledge to the table, taking leading technologies to the very limits of the possible. We know how to modify a wide range of parameters in any given projector and achieve a superior image. We solve the thermal challenges – often, that enables us to drive the units a bit harder and thus increase the system’s overall dynamic range, achieving finer and more accurate color fidelity, on and on.
Folks are amazed at our picture fidelity, and have even set up side-by-side comparison tests with similar type engines from the given OEM manufacturer. We win those shoot-outs every time.
Lastly, we service what we sell. That also gives us an advantage, since we can determine where the failure points occurred, and adjust our processes so that similar issues won’t manifest in the future.
MJ: How is your European and Asian business? Any areas globally surprising you? And if so why?
JM: We’re doing very well in the UK, Canada, Brazil and starting to see some significant growth in China, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe.
MJ: While the trend seems to be away from dedicated theater rooms, how do you see the future of Wolf Cinema? Where do you see the future?
JM: These are indeed exciting times to be in the specialty video business, and from our vantage point the two-piece projector and screen system will be around for many years to come.
UHD/4K is driving strong consumer interest, and folks are now upgrading from say an earlier digital unit or even an HD projector from a few years ago – everyone is now making the leap to 4K.
Very large flat panel displays are important as larger screens influence our client’s satisfaction levels. But there is nothing like a 10-12 ft. wide screen to provide that truly immersive home theater experience.
These days a new projector investment is a lot more reasonable, especially with the laser/phosphor illumination technologies that basically eliminate periodic lamp changes and associated re-calibration requirements.
In the future, we’ll see more modular display technologies come into play – for example, high density interconnected LED modules. You’ll build a custom screen out of smaller panels, with UHD or higher resolution, bright and color accurate images. But currently such solutions are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, so our offerings will remain a great value and provide those fabulous Wolf Cinema performances for years to come.