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Posh Plexes Make for Boffo B.O.

Designers are working with forward-thinking movie theater operators to raise the bar on the movie-going experience.

August 01, 2007 |

Easy DVD rentals, sophisticated home theater systems, and outrageous ticket prices ($11 for an adult general admission ticket in midtown Manhattan) are threatening to make the local cineplex go the way of the burlesque hall. In response, some heads-up theater companies are starting to offer patrons a much classier night on the town, with elegant facilities that offer seat reservations, gourmet concessions, more comfortable furnishings, and smaller, exclusive auditoriums.

“The concept is to provide an upscale experience for the patrons,” says Warwick Wicksman, AIA, senior associate in Gensler's Santa Monica, Calif., office. “It is more subdued, less stressful, and often has more of a luxury hotel atmosphere.”

Gone are lobbies and concession areas with garish neon lighting, gargantuan video displays, and homespun candy counters. In their place are bars and restaurants with high-end finishes, stylish furnishings, and appetizing food and beverage offerings. “With better design,” Wicksman says, “theater operators are getting rid of the visual assault that was the typical designs of the mega-plexes of the '80s, and making the theaters a more comfortable, pleasant place to be.”

The latest example: The Landmark in West Los Angeles (designed by PleskowRael Architecture, Marina del Ray, Calif.), which opened in June with a well-stocked wine and beer bar, a concierge desk in the lobby in lieu of a box office, and separate seating in three “living room” auditoriums that can accommodate up to 50 people. These intimate spaces are furnished with sofas, loveseats, side tables, and ottomans.

“Separation” is the key to these new facilities, says Mike Wilson, VP of real estate development for Muvico Theaters, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which has operated premier experience theaters for several years, including its flagship in Boca Raton, Fla. “Our concept is similar to a skybox or a luxury box in a sports venue or concert hall,” says Wilson. “We offer separated seating areas that are not accessible to the general admission guest.” Muvico's premier customers use a separate entrance, box office, and lounge that connects to the balcony areas, which hold up to 100 seats, in contrast to 300 general admission seats. Muvico has been working with Baltimore, Md.-based Development Design Group on their newest venture: the 102,246-sf Meadowlands Xanadu 18 in East Rutherford, N.J.

Instead of going the separation route, other theater companies, such as Los Angeles's renowned ArcLight Cinemas, are choosing to scale up their entire cineplex. These are relatively small facilities, averaging about 55,000 sf, with 14 screens and a total of 2,000 seats. High-end amenities and design features can drive up costs to as much as $300/sf for core and shell and interiors. For example, the ArcLight Café and Balcony Bar in the Sunset Boulevard complex, both designed to become destinations in their own right, are adjoined to one of the auditoriums for special 21+ movie screenings. Seats within the auditoriums are up to 25 inches wide (with the standard being 22 inches) with double arm rests; reclining seats with foot rests are options in other theaters.

The ArcLight is one of the country's few all-premier theaters, but Wicksman predicts that more theaters will be heading in this direction. “The push for more ArcLight-type venues is something we have been seeing for years,” he says, “but with few actually making it through to completion.”

Gensler is currently working with Arc-Light on its newest complex, a 100,000-sf complex in Sherman Oaks, Calif., set to open in November.

“No matter how advanced home entertainment systems get, they still cannot compete with a great theater experience,” says Wicksman. “And now theater operators are redefining how great that experience can be.”

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