The architecture of today’s theaters

posted by Michael Zoldessy on March 21, 2008 at 8:00 am

An interesting read from Architect Magazine discusses the changing look and feel of today’s theaters.

Not long ago, the average American movie theater was big on square footage and short on personality. Cookie-cutter interiors made it difficult to distinguish one venue or chain from another. The introduction of stadium seating in the 1990s drew audiences with the promise of enhanced comfort (not aesthetics) and became the dominant trend in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Stadium seating “led to record attendance in 2002 and record box office in 2004,” says Patrick Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), an industry group. But its novelty is wearing off, he says: “People are looking for something more.”

Lots more. Today, the industry is experiencing a burst in construction and renovation activity. Movie exhibitors around the country are tempting patrons with new, carefully designed theaters that cater to increasingly sophisticated desires. Parking lots, popcorn, and box-office lines are being replaced by valet parking, bars and restaurants, and online reserved seating. Companies ranging from industry giants Regal and AMC to the art-house Landmark hope to pull in bigger box offices through enhanced architecture.

“About every 11 years, there’s this spurt cycle where people reinvent what going to the movies is all about,” says veteran entertainment architect Mike Cummings, principal of TK Architects in Kansas City, Mo. Cummings believes the industry is now in the midst of one of these overhauls. “The [trend] before this, of course, was stadium seating and the big megaplex. But that’s not what we’re seeing anymore. There is a lot more attention to brand and to design.”

Comments (22)

moviebuff82 on March 21, 2008 at 11:25 am

this is why attendance has been slowing down a bit from a few years ago. Even though movies are getting better, the age and structure of newer theaters seem to follow the same path of one, as was the case with the first megaplex, the AMC Grand 24 in Dallas, which is still open. The next big thing will be style and substance. When the new Muvico theater opens in East Rutherford, it will be the first megaplex to have a giant outdoor screen on top of the existing theater (for IMAX use), and a helipad will accomodate celebs for movie premieres and such. The guy who founded Loews created five Wonder theaters, and they were architectual marvels at the time. Out of these five, only one still plays old movies. Stan Durwood created the multiplex thing way before Canadians expanded the idea.

Chris Utley
Chris Utley on March 21, 2008 at 1:39 pm

And this article still hasn’t addressed the REAL problem: the screens at multiplexes are TOO! DAMN! SMALL! They’re spending all this money on ornate decor and lavish concession items but what’s the point of all this when you have auditoriums sporting screns the size of postage stamps? Damn near every modern day multiplex you walk into has top-masking – which gives the appearance of making 2:35 widescreen films look smaller than life instead of larger. How are these theatres and their “mini screens” gonna compete against the 50-75 inch HDTV’s that are flooding the market?

Screen size is my #1 decision making factor in choosing which theatres I see movies in. No one with any good sense and sensibility should see Indiana Jones, Iron Man or The Dark Knight at The Grove. Despite all that gushing praise for that join in this article, their one size fits all screens are PATHETIC! That goes for the gaudy Landmark AND the new construction models by AMC – in which the top AND bottom of the screen gets masked for widescreen films.

Thank God for Grauman’s Chinese & Arclight Hollywood (Dome focusing issues withstanding). At least they get the memo: BIGGER IS BETTER!

KramSacul on March 21, 2008 at 10:03 pm

If you’re referring to the Mann’s Chinese 6, by Grauman’s) they have top down masking. The screens actually look better when it’s down since 1.85:1 films are way too tall. What were they thinking?

TheaterBuff1 on March 22, 2008 at 1:31 am

Not only do movie theater screens need to be kept big to retain a competitive edge over advances being made in home systems, but I feel it’s also very important that audiences get to look up to, as opposed to down towards, the screen, as is the case with theaters having stadium-style seating, and also those with balconies.

In terms of masking to accommodate various aspect ratio formats, it should always strictly be done from the sides, not from top and bottom. Theaters should be designed to be quite wide, therefore, in keeping with this understanding. And working hand-in-hand with this, curtains. There must be the curtains!

markp on March 22, 2008 at 6:24 am

When I was first getting into the business as a union projectionist 33 years ago, I had the pleasure, though short, to work some of the old Walter Reade theatres still left. He had the right idea as far as screen masking. 2 motors instead of one. When we went from our “flat” ratio of 1.75:1 to our “scope” ratio of 2.35:1, we pushed one button on the booth wall, and the side maskings would open about 8 to 10 feet on each side, and the top masking came down about 2 to 3 feet. I know when I sat there and watched movies, and seeing that transformation from the trailers to the feature, I still get breathless thinking about it today. Oh yes, and by the way, this was in a sloped theatre, no balcony, and 1375 seats, with aisles along the outer wall, and ¼ of the way in from the outer wall, NO center aisle, the best viewing in any theatre. And as TheatreBuff1 stated above, we had a beautiful red curtain that opened and closed, no cheesey slides or trivia or any of the crap you see today, in all these modern sheetrock broom closets they build. So everyone wants to know whats wrong with the industry? Well, we’re all here on CT talking about the grand palaces of yesterday, you just got the answer.

TheaterBuff1 on March 22, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Movie534, I feel honored, while at the same time humbled, to read your commentary, as you certainly got to experience the movie theater business when it was its finest, and via working within the industry at that when it was! In my own case, I myself got to experience the classic single-screen neighborhood movie theaters and downtown movie palaces during my youth — as a theatergoer — but never had the privilege of knowing what it was like to work behind the scenes in them. Because by the time I came of age everything had gone to multiplexes if it hadn’t been torn down. I assume so much of that downward transition was political. I have to assume that, for why else? I don’t like to make excuses why we can’t have great single-screen neighborhood movie theaters and downtown movie palaces again today, complete with the beautiful curtains that open and close and so on. But if there’s a way to either work around politics, or to work with politics, so as to make it happen, I haven’t hit upon that way yet. Great politicians it appears to me have always been very supportive of well-run theaters. But it’s been awhile since we’ve had that. Case in point, I could just imagine so many incumbents of today upon special invitation squirming in their theater seats during that scene in THE ROBE as Jean Simmons tongue-lashes Caligula about how the rulers of Rome once were noble.

In this particular thread I think it is important to pinpoint all the things that make for a great movie theater architecturally, to keep the concept alive if more cannot be done right now. And, of course, to encourage all cases where it can be.

markp on March 23, 2008 at 7:22 am

I couldn’t agree with you more TheatreBuff1. Politics had a huge part in it. Why have a movie theatre, when you can have a big soaring skyscraper or retail store instead? And don’t forget, T.V. didn’t help either. As for your other statement, I feel the same way you do, only in that my dad was an IA projectionist for 55 years, and started in the late 30’s. He got to expierience that which I wished I could, but did not. So I know how you feel, very sad and longing for the days of yesteryear.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on March 23, 2008 at 7:36 am

This is why, at least in the Chicagoland Area, the cinemas built for Cineplex-Odeon in the late 1980s did not survive. Several of them like the Grove Cinema in Downer’s Grove have already been demolished. Others like the Bricktown were turned into health clubs. The Lincoln Village is about the last of these and it is barely hanging on.

That is why when Keresotas took over the Webster Place, the company invested a boatload of money into it, gutting it, and doing a total rehab on it. Although the Webster has always been a popular place, the investment paid off handsomely.

RobertR on March 23, 2008 at 8:51 am

I recently went to a wedding in a catering hall that had been remodeled within the past year. It was gold and red and reminded me greatly of an old movie theatre with its coves all having colored backlighting. Upon closer inspection I realized it was all prefab material but looked damn good. Why not make movie theatres fancy again using modern materials? There is no reason the individual cinemas within a plex can’t be ornate. I am so sick of 4 walls with trivia playing on a too small screen.

Luis Vazquez
Luis Vazquez on March 23, 2008 at 1:39 pm

I respectfully disagree with Justin that films are getting better. This last year I think I only saw about 5 films in the theater. In the studios' desire to appeal to the common denominator they are increasingly putting out crap. That said, when I do go to the theater, I absolutely take into account WHERE the movie is playing. There are some theaters I just won’t go to. Specifically, the awful subterannean Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the terribly managed and unpleasant Regal Union Square Cinemas in Manhattan.

I absolutely love two theaters that have been renovated in the last couple of years; The IFC theater (the former Waverly) and Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema. Both of these theaters are extremely comfortable, esthetically pleasing, and architecturally distinctive. I will see a film at these theaters that I might not see if it were playing elsewhere.

I also agree with the above comments that screen size is very key to the theatergoing experience. Owners have to realize that.

I also don’t understand, when all sorts of synthetic materials can be cheaply made and imported from China, why can’t Faux movie palaces be built? Or at least build theaters that harken to that age. Years ago, Loew’s built Lincoln Square which paid tribute to the palaces of the past by naming each of the multiplexes individual theaters after a storied palace of the past. There is also a small plaque outside each theater with a brief history. That was a good start, but it should have gone further. Each of the individual theaters should have been built in that style (even if they used cheap material). Hoepfully that will happen someday, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’ll end with Marcus Loew’s famous quote…..“I don’t sell tickets to movies; I sell tickets to theaters!”

Broan on March 23, 2008 at 2:21 pm

I would disagree with Paul Fortini’s comment. Cineplex Odeon, for all its faults, was probably the instigator of this trend towards distinction. Remember in its context, Cineplex was the one giving its theaters a distinctive brand by using consistent materials, and they were also the ones bringing back luxury image materials like marble, subtle lighting and thick carpet in contrast to the prevalent spartan interiors like General Cinemas and AMC had been using for many years. In addition Cineplex was putting in actual waterfall curtains at many locations, which was long-gone from most places at the time (and even now). The Grove in particular fit this trend; opening at the height of the shoebox era, its theaters averaged 450 seats. In fact an article at its opening specifically stated, “The new theaters feature decor designed to recapture the essence of theater palaces of the 1920s and 1930s. Interior designs include Italian marble floors, stepped ceilings, glassed-in loggia and pastel color scheme. The auditoriums will feature high-tech projection and sound equipment. (…) Billed as the company’s most technologically advanced complex, [Grove] features THX sound systems and 70mm screens in two auditoriums and Dolby stereo in the others.”

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on March 23, 2008 at 5:20 pm


You are right about that. Lincoln Village still has the waterfall curtains, although I understand that they are no longer in use.

You are right and C-O did try to modernize the movie-going experience for theatre patrons. I just find it interesting that so many of the theatres that they built between 1985 and 1990 in the Chicagoland Area are now closed. The Grove has even been demolished after standing for only 15 years or so.

Broan on March 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

Oh, yes, it absolutely is fascinating, and I question how adaptable these new trends in architecture will be. It seems like they would have the potential to become dated much more quickly, just like how most movie palaces of the 20s underwent dramatic art deco makeovers and subsequent adaptations over the ensuing decades.

Chris Utley
Chris Utley on March 23, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Mark Lucas: Please note that I said GRAUMAN’S CHINESE – not the Mann Chinese 6. I KNOW the difference, friend. :o)

TheaterBuff1 on March 23, 2008 at 10:35 pm

At risk of revealing how unknowledgeable I am when it comes to theaters of yore, what is meant by “waterfall curtains” specifically? The theaters I remember of my youth had curtains that opened and closed sideways, while I assume the really older theaters — the ones with stage houses (and that I never had the pleasure of knowing) — had curtains that went straight up. And, of course, without having a stage house, I don’t see how the latter could be possible.

Now with regard to construction materials used to fancify a theater, I think every theater owner [or I would hope] would love to go all out with that, incorporating the best materials money can buy. But it wouldn’t make sense to go too overboard with this if the political situation is unstable. Case in point, the Mastbaum Memorial Theatre in Philadelphia — /theaters/1207/ — had been designed so fancifully that it made the House of Versailles blush. It incorporated all sorts of marble, or what looked to be such, and magnificent murals, and, well, what didn’t it incorporate in terms of its over all interior splendor? It was like a Renaissance European opera house within. Yet for reasons I never knew about — I assume it was politics — it hardly lasted very long. Built in 1929 with a screen size of 27' x 60', by 1958 it had seen the wrecking ball. And you have to wonder, why? For up until the last it had been hugely successful, featuring live performances as well as epic films. And in the part of the city where it had been located — 5 blocks west of Philadelphia City Hall on busy Market Street — it constituted a noteworthy bright spot where one was clearly needed. And when it was demolished it wasn’t a case of “down with the old (or in this case not so old) and in with the new.” Rather, in its wake nothing rose up…other than a desolate stretch of Market Street west of City Hall for many years thereafter. So in light of that I believe it to be understandable why theater owners might be reluctant to commit too much.

At the other extreme, creating the sense of splendor, but relying on low cost materials to create the appearance of such, if the materials used in that case appear to be uncannily cheap — coming from China as LuisV suggests — well there’s a reason for that extraordinarily low cost of course. And what could prove to be a very dangerous one if no thorough investigation is made to find out why such materials are arriving into the U.S. so cheap. It could be because of an intense reliance on slave labor in the country of their origin, or because the materials were pillaged rather than acquired legitimately, or in violation of international environmental ethics, or a long list of other things that could later haunt the theater owner if he goes ahead and just buys them blind, or in full knowledge but also full disregard of how they were acquired. What goes around comes around, in other words.

So thinking in terms of the theater of the future, with hopes of matching and even surpassing what had been in the past, it helps to know what exactly caused the theaters of the past to fold. As for the competition from TV not helping, when I was young TV had been in its Golden Era. Yet the theaters were really great at that time simultaneously. In many ways the two appeared to be complementary. For watching TV at home was one thing. Seeing movies in a well-run theater was another. And no matter how great TV might’ve been then, it couldn’t hold a candle to the specialness of the theatergoing experience. And even with all the latest advances, watching TV at home still can’t. And so far as I’m concerned, so long as people wish to date, or families like to go out on a special outing, or kids want to attend the afternoon matinee together, there’s always going to be the strong need for that well-run theater. That much, as far as I’m concerned, has never gone away. But I can list a whole lot of politicians who I only wish would…

Broan on March 23, 2008 at 10:49 pm

A waterfall curtain raises up and down using bunching at the top instead of a stage house. it uses a number of lines to pull it, so as it rises it has ripples like a waterfall.

RobertR on March 24, 2008 at 6:38 am

I could accept the shoebox if the theatre had a HUGE curved screen.

markp on March 24, 2008 at 7:13 am

Aside from what we all said above, TheatreBuff1 hit the mark right on the head with the last comment. “There’s always going to be the strong need for that well-run theatre.” That’s been a lot of the problem with the entire movie industry in general. Too many people are in it who are not true showman, like what we had in the old days. I have worked in theatres where these owners don’t have a clue what it takes to run a movie theatre. And these big chains, I can tell you they all run with budgets and set limits on how many people they can have on a given shift. If it rains, or for some reason its extremely busy, and you wait on line forever, oh well. So the real problem is finding that “well-run” theatre. I don’t care if its AMC or Regal, or Clearview, they all have faults, and they are all watched over by nothing more than pencil pushers, not showman.

Luis Vazquez
Luis Vazquez on March 24, 2008 at 9:31 am

I apologize for being flippant in my comments about using cheap materials from China. My point was that “Faux Palaces” could be built using the technology that created Las Vegas in all of its “Faux” glory. I have no idea how financially feasible that would be, but I totally know that the theaters of the past, with their marble, mahogany, chandeliers, tapestries, etc. will never be financially feasible again.

I do think that a theater that is architecturally significant with a well designed interior that harkens to the past would draw from other theaters, but no one is going to build it unless it can pay its own way.

Speaking from personal experience, I don’t always go to the closest theater to see a film. I tend to go to the theater where I enjoy seeing a film best. This is pretty easy to do in Manhattan where its easy to get around on mass transit.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on March 24, 2008 at 8:52 pm

Interesting what Movie534 said about chains in the above post. I’ve liked what Kerasotes has done here in the Chicago area. And we also have Classic Cinemas too. I’ve been taking my business to Kerasotes and Classic Cinemas a lot lately.

TheaterBuff1 on March 24, 2008 at 11:50 pm

Since that last post of mine, I took out a moment of time today to watch a DVD a friend of mine gave me recently titled “La Reggia Di Versailles,” and boy, is it ever a reality check of how far architecture has fallen since. It’s a walk-through documentary of the House of Versailles, showing its countless fountains, sitting rooms, reception areas, bedroom quarters, chapel, theaters, painstakenly manicured grounds, etc., so much of it today still looking as fresh as when it was built — over 200 years ago. Yet how can it be that in today’s world — with all our advances — we cannot even begin to hold a candle to that which was done without the benefit of motorized cranes, power tools, computers, trucks for construction material shipment, etc., over 200 years ago? And the only answer seems to be that more hard work and effort today is being poured into the prevention of such expert craftsmanship from ever surfacing again, than the hard work and effort it once took to build the Versailles palace. We seemed to be on the right track there for a while, our great movie palaces of yore being an excellent example. But then what the heck happened? For look at the obstacles entailed in attempting to build a great theater in today’s world. Is it that we lack the technological advance needed to do it? No. Is it that we lack the blue collar labor force necessary to help make it happen? No. Is it that we lack the… Well, I could go on, but I believe you get the idea. It’s not the lack of what’s needed to get back on a forward track that is the problem. Rather, it’s the presence of all the hard work that goes into the stoppage of such from happening. The accountants and politicians and lawyers that work tirelessly to come up with complicated, calculatingly confusing excuses why this and that “cannot be done.” Not to mention all the money poured into the concocting of that excuse, so much of it being our own taxdollars. I look at all the round-the-clock hard work and money that goes into presidential campaigns of today, the long grueling run of it, and I think, if all that hard work and money could somehow be redirected, the campaigning politicians could kick back and relax and we wouldn’t be holding this conversation right now, for where would there be the time to when there’s so many great theaters around to be going to?

TLSLOEWS on February 28, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Right on TheaterBuff1!

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