CONCEPTUAL COMPLEX

SF's eclectic Yerba Buena

Sony’s flagship entertainment complex in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center will be much more than a traditional night out at the movies, if Stanley Steinberg, Maurice Sendak, David Macaulay and Jean Giraud have anything to say do about it. Claiming to take out-of-home entertainment to a new level, Steinberg, who is chairman of Sony Retail Entertainment, has armed himself with creative giants Sendak, author of renowned children’s books; “The Way Things Work” creator Macaulay and French illustrator Giraud.

The four-story South-of-Market development at Yerba Buena Center will have an anchor of 15 cinema screens and a 3-D Imax Theatre, but it will also have three original interactive play areas based on the works of Sendak, Macaulay and Moebius, as well as themed food and beverage areas and retail outlets.

“We’ve done a great job of bringing entertainment into the home,” said Steinberg. “But we haven’t done as good a job with out-of-home entertainment. The best people to do that are in the entertainment business. Most retail areas are developed by normal real estate developers.

“(The Sony complex) is more. This is a marriage between retailers, developers and entertainment people. We are trying to create a place that will be a lot of fun for all demographics. We want to do something unique and create an entertaining place,” said Steinberg.

Rather than exploiting a well-known cartoon character, Steinberg looked to classic literature, choosing the award-winning book “Where the Wild Things Are” because of its familiarity and popularity with both children and adults.

Sendak is designing a progressive play area in which his book will be transformed into a live experience. People will enter the main character Max’s bedroom and experience the change that Max goes through as The Wild Things take over.

“The experience will be different every time,” said Steinberg. It would take approximately 45 minutes to get through the attraction. In addition, there will be a themed restaurant based on Sendak’s book “In The Night Kitchen” and a retail area.

“This isn’t Chuck E. Cheese,” added Steinberg. “We want this to be high-tech stuff, but very hands-on.” The target age is from toddlers to 9-year-olds, said Steinberg.

Sendak is known for staying out of the marketing arena. Despite the accolades he’s received for “Where the Wild Things Are,” he has refused until now to let it be extensively exploited. Sony wooed him by allowing him to maintain tight creative control on the project. “He’s very possessive of what he’s created. It took us a long time to explain what we would be doing. He’s our designer, not us,” said Steinberg.

The same process occurred with Macaulay and Moebius, according to Steinberg. “We wanted an ethic of design quality that is very good. They make it harder on us, but that’s what will make it succeed. We’re not looking for the easy way, we’re looking for the right way,” said Steinberg.

Another entertainment area is being developed based on Macaulay’s “The Way Things Work,” which will appeal to children from 6 to young teens. Unlike the Sendak area, this will be more of a show. “Some of it is interactive, but you are more of an observer,” said Steinberg. Details are still in the works.

The third original entertainment area is based on popular French comic book illustrator Jean Giraud, known as Moebius. This area will be called the “Open Reality Lab” and house souped-up, non-PC, Playstation technology. Software driven, “The Lab” will provide a fully interactive high-tech environment, closer to the games played on the internet than on regular Sony Playstations.

“It will change all the time, because we’re not locked into the hardware,” explained Steinberg. “And what you do affects what the guy next door does, even if you don’t know it.”

The games will be created specifically for the complex, and appeal to a wide demographic, including women. The games will be more in the nature of adventure, exploration games, than shoot-em-up games, according to John Macleod, senior vice president of Development and Operations at Sony Development. “You will be able to do things here that you won’t be able to do at home for several years,” he says.

The machines will be coinless, and the environment quieter and much more themed than a typical arcade. Although pricing has not yet been set for the complex, according to Macleod, consumers will have the option to pay for each attraction separately or to purchase a “Smart Card” with a point system debited against each purchase.

An entrance called the Gateway is where tickets are purchased on the first floor. “This is like a home page on the internet,” said Macleod. “This is where you get information.” A Sony Style retail outlet and the Discovery Channel Destination West Coast flagship store will also be located on the first floor. The second floor will feature a selection of take-out eateries called “A Taste of San Francisco,” as well as other retail outlets. Two sit-down restaurants, yet to be determined, will also be in the complex.

The movie theaters, which are located on the third floor, will boast a new look. Architect David Rockwell of the New York City-based Rockwell group has been charged with re-designing Sony Theaters throughout the United States, including Southfield, Michigan; White Plains, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; and Yerba Buena. “This is the ideal situation for an architect,” said Rockwell. “This is a celebration of going to the movies — a tribute to the golden age of movie palaces, which were fantasy palaces.”

The Yerba Buena theaters will have a series of exhibits that show the history of movies made in San Francisco. An arching proscenium over the concession stand, reminiscent of Radio City Music Hall in New York City, will be adorned with sculpted plaster friezes with movie themes. Its centerpiece will be a sculpted Maltese falcon. A large video wall will face moviegoers as they stand in line.

“There will be a sense of movement in the lobby,” says Rockwell. Stadium seating, and state of the art projection, lighting and audio are now de riguer. “(Sony) is really committed to taking theaters to the next level. They are committed to exceeding people’s expectations, and that’s paid off,” he adds.

“This is not a shopping mall. This is not a big arcade. However, we’ve got some aspects of all of that in this,” says Steinberg. “People thought that if you combined a Planet Hollywood and a movie theater that you would have a hit. But that is not the right demographics. The demographics (for this) are much broader than what’s been done before.”

The Sony complex will have only 20% to 25% retail, with the rest made up of food and entertainment outlets, as compared with a mall or festival market in which 70% to 75% is devoted to retail space, says Macleod. “The whole programmatic mix is different than traditional retail space,” he said. “We have designed it specifically for San Francisco and the unique urban context of Yerba Buena.”

Nationally, Sony is looking to develop similar entertainment complexes in five to 10 other cities, according to Steinberg. He cites Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Boston as cities which have the right demographics. “There is not room for 100 of these type of complexes in the USA,” said Steinberg.

San Francisco was chosen for a number of factors, including its large residential, affluent population, large convention and business travel market, as well as its significant repeat tourist business, according to Macleod. The city does not have an Imax theater, and the site is ideal for movie theaters due to its proximity to other cultural amenities.

Yerba Buena is an emerging part of the city, which is being highly developed into an arts center. In the works are a Jewish museum and a Mexican museum, as well as a children’s center, several hotels and an office building. The recently opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is also located at Yerba Buena. Nearby is Union Square, which is primarily known for its high-end shopping. “The city and San Francisco’s redevelopment agency were very supportive,” said Macleod. It is also close to public transportation and existing parking, he added.

In addition, the new technology featured in the Sony entertainment complex is being created in the Bay Area. According to Macleod, more than 5,000 people are being employed as they work with developers to create high-tech experiences for consumers. “This is the city where the industry is emerging from. We see this center as a way to tap into what is happening there.”

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