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Movie theater design

Tradition goes high-tech for the latest generation of movie palaces

By Andreas Fuchs

Pictured: Krikorian’s Metroplex 18 in Buena Park, Calif.

The era of rectangular concrete buildings adorned with gleaming pink and yellow beams is over. After years of “McDonald’s-ization” of the movie experience in other parts of the world, American exhibitors are adding form to function in their multiplex designs. Throughout the nation, grand staircases, crystal chandeliers and ceilings with hand-painted frescoes recall the elegance and opulence of classic film palaces.

These days, successful multiplex design involves emulating stylish hotels, evoking nostalgia for classic theaters and renovating or expanding on those original palaces of dreams. Patrons have come to expect theaters boasting state-of-the-art projection and sound systems, stadium seating and a wide range of snack options, but more enterprising operators are offering luxurious surroundings and such amenities as VIP seating, child care and full-service bars and restaurants.

The new features and improved ambience should give customers an experience worthy of the $10 price of admission, U.S. exhibitors say, and thereby should help keep attendance strong. In addition, such upscale facilities appeal to an older, more affluent demographic that is demonstrating renewed interest in going to the movies.

“Elegance, class, glamour — we are going back to what moviegoing is all about,” Redondo Beach, Calif.-based theater owner George Krikorian says. “People no longer want to go to ‘big box’ theaters that have the personality of warehouses and look more like an airport than a movie theater.”

Krikorian should know: His Premiere Theatres multiplex in Vista, Calif. (scheduled to open its doors next month) and his Metroplex 18 in Buena Park, Calif., have more in common with luxury hotels than with the average multiplex.

But it took an exhibition outsider to bring mahogany paneling, plush carpeting and oversized club chairs to the multiplex lobby: Rick Caruso, CEO of Santa Monica-based Caruso Affiliated Holdings, is responsible for Pacific Theatres’ the Grove 14 multiplex at Los Angeles’ Farmers Market, and he is planning a similar development in Glendale, Calif. The $170 million, 16-acre commercial and residential Glendale Town Center, scheduled to open in 2005 or 2006, will be anchored by a 16-screen Pacific multiplex.

“Our advantage was that we had never built a movie theater before,” Caruso said at the launch of the Grove multiplex. “Coming from retail development, we were not locked in the box of what the rules are supposed to be. I traveled to many of the most successful theaters in the country before settling on a classically inspired environment, complete with five-star service.”

With architecture firm Perkowitz+Ruth, which designed the Grove cinema and the new Krikorian sites, Caruso has strived “to reinvent the grand movie palaces of Los Angeles, at the same time as we are incorporating the very best of moviegoing today.”

The Pacific chain has developed five new local projects during the past 19 months.

“We are pleased to be the theater chain to have totally changed the moviegoing experience in Los Angeles,” Pacific chief operating officer Nora Dashwood said recently at the opening of the circuit’s Culver City 12-plex, which features an art deco-inspired design by Benson & Bohl (exterior) and Tanazaki & Associates (interior).

Origins of the trend toward blending tradition with high-tech can be traced to New York. The Loews Lincoln Square facility broke exhibition ground in 1994 by paying homage to the grand designs of Loews palaces from the past — then, in April 2000, AMC opened its Manhattan flagship on 42nd Street. The Empire Theatre, built in 1912, was moved from its original location to anchor the AMC facility, where a 25-screen megaplex surrounds its facade and beautifully restored interior.

“In (Hollywood’s) Golden Age, it was not just the film but the entire fantastical experience of going to the movies,” says David Rockwell, who engineered the “Great White Way”-themed Loews E-Walk on 42nd Street and the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. “The idea of the preshow was very inspirational. To me, any theatrical experience is as much about walking in, being in the lobby.”

The preservation of historic theaters has further upped the multiplex ante: In Hollywood, not only have the El Capitan and the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre been saved, but also two of the most recognizable movie theaters of all time have received precious upgrades. After extensive renovations at Grauman’s Chinese, Mann Theatres and Behr Browers Architects added six state-of-the art auditoriums at the neighboring Hollywood & Highland complex. Further east, on Sunset Boulevard, Pacific’s 14 “black box” theaters have become a trend-setting destination: The ArcLight Cinemas’ soaring glass lobby, complete with a cafe and movie shop, respectfully overlooks the renovated Cinerama Dome, the 1963-built mother of all wide-screen facilities.

But the trend has not been confined to the East and West coasts: Gensler Architects, which designed the ArcLight Cinemas and Loews Lincoln Square facilities, also worked on the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Springs, Md., where two screens and support spaces were added to a meticulously restored 1938 art moderne/deco auditorium. Charlotte, N.C.-based Consolidated Theatres was so impressed with that project that the circuit asked ADW Architects to design its nearby megaplex — a 4,700-stadium-seat facility set to open in May — in the “Silver spirit.”

Phoenix-based Harkins Theatres and KDRA Architects went a step further and re-created the 1966-built Cine Capri landmark as part of the chain’s 14-screen Scottsdale 101 complex. Despite the facility’s phenomenal success, though, Harkins president and CEO Dan Harkins plans to adopt the Cine Capri approach selectively — including at the Bricktown multiplex in Oklahoma City, “where the central downtown location creates a regional draw.”

“As cities around the country are restoring their historic centers, this is where you will see more of the classic and grand looks,” says Debby Brehm, vp at Omaha, Neb.-based Douglas Theatres. “It is important to fit into your surroundings, yet it is even more (important) that all the service amenities the public expects are actually inside.”

Douglas is building two megaplex projects set to open next year: Omaha’s 16-screen Village Pointe Cinema will favor the futuristic side of the design coin, featuring “plasma screens, neon and lots of color and glitz,” according to Brehm; and the Grand 14 in Lincoln, Neb., will have a 1920s and ’30s feel. Architects Michael Bott and Associates have selected granite floors, wrought iron and

marble-clad columns supporting a high, decorative lobby ceiling for the latter project, and a 20-ton antique Lincoln bank vault door will be the game-room entrance.

At the Italian piazza-themed Paradiso in Memphis, Tenn. — operated by the 88-year-old Malco Theatres chain and designed by Atkins Buchner Price Architects — an authentic Venetian bronze fountain stands in the lobby beneath a 30-foot skylighted ceiling. On the technical side, the theater boasts a digital link to USC that can transport soundtracks via Internet or satellite; offering an experimental 10.2-channel digital sound system in his 360-seat multiformat house, Malco vp theater operations/technical Mike Thompson promises “capabilities unlike any other in the country, if not the world. This theater will do anything you want, and we are excited to provide the perfect testing ground for things to come.”

So far, only U.S. exhibitors seem interested in creating such “destination” multiplexes, designed largely to appeal to consumers’ demonstrated need to combine movies with other forms of entertainment. Multiplexes in the downtown areas of several European cities, for example, are surrounded by Old World history and architecture — making their modern design all the more noteworthy.

A notable exception is Warner Village Cinemas Italia’s multiplex on Rome’s turn-of-the-20th century Piazza Della Repubblica. The facility is set in one of two identical concave buildings that define the grand square on its southeast and southwest sides. Interestingly, the site once housed three adult-movie houses; Warner purchased two for its multiplex, and the third is now the lounge for one of Rome’s most expensive hotels, the Boscolo Exedra.

“When we were restructuring the theaters, we were told that we had to keep the frescoes and the friezes and bas-reliefs of the old structures,” Warner Village Cinemas Italia director of construction Franco Capace says. “It took a team of 12 experts four months to clean the fresco.”

Stateside exhibitors appear intent on continuing to construct movie palaces. For example, the atmospheric megaplexes built by Hamid Hashemi, president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Muvico Theatres, will be anchors for his next-generation entertainment centers. At Hashemi’s Muvico Empire venues, restaurants, billiards tables, video games, playrooms, virtual-reality experiences and even bowling alleys will come together in a larger-than-life melange of ancient worlds.

“Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia — you name it,” Hashemi says, adding that his theaters are “very dramatic, active and imaginative.”

Hashemi has turned each of his theaters into a unique masterpiece: At the Muvico Egyptian near Hanover, Md., a replica of the Nile River runs through the lobby in shiny mosaic tiles; the Starlight 20 in Tampa, Fla., was designed to replicate a 1950s drive-in; and the Parisian 20 in West Palm Beach, Fla., looks like a chateau.

“These theaters are bigger than life, and they always tell a story,” he says.

Andreas Fuchs is exhibition/business editor at Film Journal International and U.S. bureau chief for Germany’s FilmEcho; Caren Davidkhanian contributed to this report. 

Published Oct. 14, 2003