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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 21 - Volume 42 Issue 47
Seattle's Cinerama Theatre grand reopening celebrates a major remodel of comfort and technology
Arts & Entertainment
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Seattle's Cinerama Theatre grand reopening celebrates a major remodel of comfort and technology

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

For any Seattleite worth their salt, the Cinerama Theatre located in the heart of downtown at Fourth and Lenora is a cinematic cathedral that has seen countless throngs walk through its hallowed doors since opening its doors in 1963. At one point scheduled to be closed and in all likelihood demolished, it was saved by Paul Allen in 1998, the Microsoft co-founder, billionaire and local philanthropist going above and beyond to restore it to its former glory by celebrating its hallowed past while also giving it technological attributes surpassing any other venue in the entire city.

Not content to let the Cinerama sit on its laurels, Allen has pushed the crew overseeing the venue to continue to innovate, and as such there have been multiple subsequent upgrades post that initial overhaul 16 years ago. But those previous renovations were nothing like what he tasked the folks at Vulcan, Inc. and their various partners to accomplish this time around. 'The Cinerama was the place to go to see the big movie,' says Robert Arron, Senior Director of Real Estate Leasing, Marketing at Vulcan Inc. 'Paul Allen's goal after taking over the theatre in 1998 was to return it to that sort of prominence. Each upgrade has always been attacked with that goal in mind.'

With this latest renovation, that goal is obvious before one even walks inside the doors into the lobby. Outside is a massive new mural by Seattle design and illustration studio Invisible Creature, the images paying homage to the countless films of all different stripes that have played at the Cinerama over the decades. While the lobby interior still stays true to its gloriously kitschy 1960s roots, the auditorium itself is a modern marvel featuring spacious seating courtesy of the Figueras chairs filling each row. The massive all-white screen is a pristine marvel, while the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system provides an immersive acoustic experience bordering on mind-blowing.

But the most significant addition is the Christie 6P laser projector, the first to be installed commercially anywhere in the world. 'An old school projection booth this is not,' comments senior systems engineer Ryan Hufford. 'There's nothing like this setup anywhere else. We have our old film [projectors] on the far side to the left. We have our original Cinerama machine, the one for the center panel in the three-strip Cinerama process, off to the right. And then, this year, we installed the two digital machines, laser-based Christie projectors, and they're right in the center as they'll get the most use. Over 90-percent of the films we will be exhibiting will be projected utilizing these machines.'



The projected image is unlike anything I'd seen before. Crystal clear in a way that shatters the senses, the experience still felt distinctly cinematic, not having the same too-polished sheen of watching digital television at home. More than that, the 3-D images the two camera setup is able to produce borders on astonishing, achieving that deep, viscerally immersive quality filmmakers like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and others have long talked about attempting to achieve and, potentially, now at long last might be able to actually do so.

Not that motion pictures shot on film won't still be showcased at the theater. Just the opposite. 'Everything is on tracks and rails now,' explains Hufford. 'When we want to exhibit in other formats these [digital] machines can be quickly moved out of the way and whatever projector is required can be relatively quickly moved into its place. We can project film in any format, the Cinerama being one of the few venues anywhere in the world that can make that claim.'

'Paul Allen is a real movie enthusiast,' proclaims Arron. 'He loved this theatre. Had a number of wonderful childhood memories here. Paul is always tasking us to be on top of the best movie sight and sound experience. At the same time, he wants to be able to celebrate the theatre's rich history. It's important to us that we can exhibit films of all formats and types at the Cinerama. He wants us to make [the Cinerama] the best movie theatre in the world.'

'Where we are right now, this [Christie projector] is certainly the most cutting edge system out there,' says a positively glowing Hufford. 'It's the most cutting edge system you're likely to see in the U.S., that's for certain. At the end of the day, we're using a matt white screen instead of the silver-based screen, and this is a very old film technology we're giving a modern polish. The light that's hitting the screen is reflected off in all directions instead of a certain location. What it means for the viewer is that, no matter where you sit [in the theatre], you get the same equal brightness and image quality as those sitting in the exact center. You can't tell the difference from anywhere in the theatre. Even if you're all the way in the back corner, the image is still gorgeous.'



There have been other upgrades made throughout the theatre as well, including at the concessions bar. While the famous chocolate popcorn hasn't gone anywhere - thank goodness for that - the Cinerama is now going to be offering a variety of delicacies new to the venue. 'We've focused on keeping things local,' Arron states. 'We've got beer and wine from Fremont, Elysian and Seattle Cider. We worked with Tom Douglas, one of our great neighbors in this area, so we've got Bravehorse Pretzels here that everyone just loved. We've got Cupcake Royale, Uli's Sausage and Theo Chocolate. It's a terrific variety.'

But the most significant change might involve how customers purchase their tickets. By buying online, potential audience members can actually reserve their seats in advance, allowing them to know exactly where it is they are going to be sitting long before they even step through the door.

'It's so simple,' explains Arron. 'A seat map comes up. You can see what's available. You can choose right then where you want to sit. You can still come to the box office and grab a ticket, of course, but by purchasing online you can know exactly where you're sitting and I don't think there are a lot of theatres of this size that offer such a thing.'

As for the venue itself, Arron sees the Cinerama remaining as a vital part of the local community. 'The wonderful thing about this movie theatre is that we play the blockbusters, we open with the big pictures, but we also do festivals and we run a lot of other things that most theaters just don't do,' he proudly states. 'We're bringing back the Sci-Fi Festival. We'll have the Horror Fest. We have a lot of fun ideas for 2015.'

Which means continuing to be a vital part of Seattle's biggest and best festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival, the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and the Jewish Film Festival. 'We want to continue those relationships and start a whole new set of relationships a well,' says Arron. 'One thing we do here, and we'll do a lot more of it, is we offer the theatre to a variety of organizations during off hours. We have times, especially mornings, when we're not running movies and we want groups to come down here. We want people to take advantage of the theatre, not just for festivals, but for a wide variety of events and gatherings. We want to continue to embrace our old friends and hopefully embrace a lot of new friends as well.'

'We really are so proud of this product. We want the whole Puget Sound area to know about [the Cinerama]. We want to draw the people who would normally go to the suburban multiplex to come down. Once they're here, once they experience a movie here, I really think, if given the choice, they'll come to the Cinerama first. That's our goal and we're going to do anything possible to make that happen.'

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