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change agents

Actor Johnny Depp attends a news conference to promote the film "Black Mass" at the Toronto International Film Festival.Fred Thornhill/Reuters

Jack Zhang thinks Johnny Depp has gotten a bad rap. The actor has taken heat over the fact that many of his recent movies have flopped, leading some critics to label the leading man – who commands a salary of up to $20-million (U.S.) per picture – as overrated and overpaid.

But Mr. Zhang, a graduate of the University of Waterloo's mathematical economics program and co-founder of Greenlight Essentials isn't just voicing an opinion. He's being scientific. He has studied the data and found the actor has simply been miscast. He is, in fact, box office gold in two particular types of film: fantasy and crime biography.

That led Mr. Zhang to predict, shortly before its release in September, that Black Mass – a biopic about gangster Whitey Bulger – would do well. Sure enough, the movie earned back its modest $53-million budget in just a few weeks, a better result than Mr. Depp has seen in some time.

"Talents perform differently throughout different genres," says Mr. Zhang, an avowed film buff. "If you don't look closely in that specific genre you're probably wasting a lot of money hiring people who don't have solid performance in that genre."

Greenlight Essentials, in Waterloo, Ont., is one of many Canadian startups taking aim at the once-mighty movie industry. Both the studio side and the theatre side of the business are looking for ways to stay competitive with new innovations, such as improved projection imagery or experiences to augment movie-going.

"Movie theatres have had to reckon with a smaller and smaller audience," says Darryle Ulama, an analyst at IBISWorld. "They've tapped into the startup tech culture to try and reverse that trend."

While chains such as Cineplex Entertainment Inc. have seen recent revenue growth, much of that has come from concession stands. Ticket sales have been flat for the past five years, according to tracking firm IBISWorld. They have found that people are simply spending more of their time watching Netflix at home, playing video games or any number of other leisure activities.

Cinemas and movie studios alike are thus looking for new ways to attract and keep audiences.

Mr. Zhang says several studios are looking to test his Analytics Terminal to see if it can help guide them away from investing in flops. The system scrapes online sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database for casting, box office and other relevant data. The software then crunches the information and presents it in graphs and charts.

The idea of using data and analytics to predict box office performance has been tried many times, but Mr. Zhang believes his method is better because it shows the user how its conclusions have been reached. Studio executives can then use that information to make their own, better-educated guesses.

"They see everything that's going on in our method," he says. "We're trying to be that layer between data and people. Data is talking a different language than people. People generally can't understand data."

At the other end of the process, Vancouver-based MTT Innovation is looking to improve films once they are actually ready to be shown with better projection capabilities.

The company's Light Engine introduces high-dynamic range technology to projectors. By "steering" light away from the parts of the picture where it's not needed, the engine creates more efficient projectors that also produce brighter images, according to co-founder Anders Ballestad.

This is especially important because televisions are now ahead of theatres in terms in picture quality, especially with the impending move to higher-resolution ultra high-definition.

"It's becoming a sore point for studios and creatives alike," Mr. Ballestad says. "They're afraid that, with better-looking televisions and content being sent straight to the TV through Netflix and so on, the cinema might be in a bit of trouble."

MTT is in talks with several projector makers, he adds. The company also won a best-in-show award at the recent SIGGRAPH conference, an annual computer graphics industry event.

Startups are also finding room to play in between film conception and presentation, with many attempting to make the consumer's movie-going experience more enjoyable.

Toronto-based TimePlay began with a limited pilot of its interactive cinema product in Cineplex theatres in 2011, and has since expanded to 1,000 theatres across Canada, the United States and Europe. The company makes a mobile phone app that allows movie-goers to play on-screen quizzes and games, with prizes often awarded.

The app allows theatres to pull in advertising revenue in a way that is also engaging and rewarding to consumers, says chief executive officer Jon Hussman.

"They're looking for new revenue streams and there's not that many," he says. "They're also needing to stay competitive. There are so many alternatives out there that they need to appeal, especially to their core market."

Theatre chains are aware of the growing competition from other forms of entertainment and are having to become entrepreneurial themselves. Toronto-based Cineplex recently announced a $15-million acquisition of WorldGaming, which will see eSports video-game competitions come to its theatres.

The company is also more open to partnering with startups such as TimePlay and Montreal-based D-Box Technologies, which makes theatre chairs that move in time with on-screen action.

"I always tell our people, 'You should continue to be paranoid' because there's a lot of disruption taking place," Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob says. "We have to continue to evolve the experience in order to stay relevant."

Follow Peter Nowak on Twitter: @peternowakOpens in a new window

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