Exhibitors look beyond the multiplex

New programming changes theater design plans

In the first week of October, Sony teamed up with movie theaters for a four-city tour that allowed gamers to play the new PlayStation3 title “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” on the bigscreen.

Mike Fidler, senior vice president of Sony Electronics’ Digital Cinema Solution and Services Group, says the tour gave exhibitors the chance to offer additional programming options that could come from alternative content, “such as gaming events, simulcasts, prerecorded concerts and sporting events.”

With new programming, though, come different patrons who use theaters differently and make different demands. Gamers, for example, are likely to sit longer than moviegoers. So exhibitors are rethinking theater design with an eye toward accommodating new customers and events.

That affects everything from concessions to theater seating.

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AMC Entertainment has tried to get ahead of the curve at a few of its theaters. In Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta, patrons can sit in plush seats in the Fork & Screen theater and have tabletop service that includes fire-roasted veggie quesadillas as well as a beer to go along with it from MacGuffins, a bar adjacent to the theater.

Frank Rash, AMC Entertainment’s senior vice president of strategic development, says only a handful of theaters so far offer the upgraded service. “Obtaining a liquor license is a city-by-city, municipality-by-municipality case,” Rash notes.

In other words, don’t expect bars to pop up in all of AMC’s theaters overnight. But with sports beginning to push their way onto theater screens, exhibitors can see they’ll need to sell beer if they want to sell tickets.

Besides alternative content, the digital rollout also challenges exhibitors to push the envelope on how theaters themselves should look in the future.

Digital projectors eliminate the need for large platters to hold prints, so projection booths can shrink. And with a central control room running those d-cinema systems remotely, multiplexes might evolve away from the current air-terminal design, which is dictated by the need to have projectionists keep an eye on many screens at once.

Creating a more immersive theater experience, especially with the explosion in the popularity of stereoscopic 3D (S3D), also looks like a priority.

“The introduction of digital design has increased stadium-seating presentation house experiences with better sound, acoustics, seating comfort and overall viewing,” says Don Rataj, principal of Rataj-Krueger Architects.

Even with the upgrades, Marty Banks, director of the Visual Space Perception Laboratory at UC Berkeley, pointed out at the NAB Digital Cinema Summit earlier this year that S3D will force exhibitors to redraw the floor plans of their theaters because patrons sitting on the sides, especially in front, get a poor experience in S3D.

“We do have viewing challenges with 3D and even 2D,” Rash concedes. “We’re always trying to improve sight lines.”