SkyTheater offers theater in the sky

 - September 14, 2006, 11:01 AM

SkyTheater is a relatively small company–at its core, three friends with a wealth of experience and a devotion to the ultimate audiovisual experience in a business jet cabin– doing a big-screen business.

Gregg Launer, one of its cofounders, describes the group simply as “movie buffs, musicians and audiophiles.” He is being humble. Launer broke into the business with NBC at the age of 19 and has a background in sound and video design and integration. Andrew Guenther is a movie theater designer whose Advanced Audio Design company has done home theaters for many of the entertainment industry’s elite. Jim Stedman is a former Gulfstream Aerospace employee and the company avionics guru, “from cockpit to cabin.” The company hires help as needed on a contract basis.

The team has been described as “an integrated system” that is the audiovisual equivalent of ballroom dancing. They finish one another’s sentences and appear to make intuitive leaps effortlessly as part of a group exercise.

Self-effacing, they are at the same time brash enough to recommend movies and music to their clients, along with reviews, and annually issue their own list of Oscar predictions. “We’ll go to movies together and by the time we walk out of the theater we’re already discussing whether it’s a best picture candidate and whether it’ll win best sound.”

Most recently SkyTheater has gone into the air in a Challenger 604, two Gulfstreams and a Global Express. Currently, it is being installed in two Boeing Business Jets. One of them, said Launer, has three separate SkyTheaters in three separate cabin zones.

The company doesn’t merely move along with technology. It is often driven to think outside the box by customers who have the same standards for quality video and audio, said Launer. SkyTheater is already offering a high-definition video on-demand system that will hold up to 25,000 movies, “and that’s not compressed data,” added Guenther. “It’s all on a multiple hard-drive system so there’s no loss of video or audio quality. “A system,” he said, “that’s true to the director’s intent.”

In fact, said Launer, “Once you’ve experienced a SkyTheater system in one of our airplanes, a commercial movie theater will be a disappointment.

“We shoot for the IMAX experience, minus the big screen [for obvious reasons] and without the need for headphones.”

SkyTheater’s offices are in Pembroke Pines, a few steps south of Fort Lauderdale and a few more steps north of Miami. The company also has a site near Fort Lauderdale International Airport where it can install its systems. Or the company will send a complete system to any completion or refurbishment center for installation, along with technicians to provide guidance in the installation process.

Launer said SkyTheater prefers to deal directly with the owner-operators, rather than butt heads with completion and refurbishment centers that might be promoting a competing entertainment system. It should come as no surprise that many of SkyTheater’s customers are from the entertainment industry.

But don’t look for a Web site. The company doesn’t have one. “We’ve been happy with word-of-mouth advertising from the people who bought our system, either for a home or aircraft,” said Guenther.

While the company declines to name those people, other industry sources will–people such as film star and pilot John Travolta and rising tennis star Maria Sharapova. But even word of mouth has its limits, said Launer, when customers take a proprietary approach and ask for assurance that SkyTheater will not provide an identical system for anyone else.

The equipment is approved under RTCA/DO-160D requirements, and the company is an FAA-approved designated engineering representative.

But is it user-friendly? Launer demonstrates the system to customers by handing them the wireless remote without a word of instruction. “I tell them, ‘Play with it for a couple of minutes and ask me if there’s anything you don’t understand.’

“I’ve never had anyone ask me a single question with regard to how to operate the system,” Launer claimed. “If you can push an elevator button, you can operate SkyTheater.”

“Every SkyTheater system is custom-designed to meet the requirements of some demanding customers,” said Guenther.