Widescreen wonder: Historic Cinerama theatre serves Seattle community

Features

Three synchronized 35mm projectors. A 90 foot by 30 foot screen. A 146-degree arc that whips the image around to the corners of your eyes. Cinerama was one of the most ambitious of the movies’ 1950s technical innovations, but it fell out of favor as cheaper, easier widescreen formats prevailed. Only three Cinerama theatres are left in the world, and the Cinerama in downtown Seattle (www.seattlecinerama.com), built in 1963, is one of them.

Today, the theatre offers a mix of classic three-strip Cinerama and 70mm movies alongside Hollywood’s summer and holiday blockbusters—the best of both worlds. But at the nadir of the theatre’s existence, it played second-run movies and was about to be turned into a climbing club or dinner theatre by developers. Microsoft co-founder and Northwest benefactor Paul Allen bought the aging venue in 1998. Besides being a movie buff who estimates he’s seen 500 movies with his pal Bill Gates, Allen was also a longtime fan of the Cinerama. He even signed a petition to save the theatre before realizing he was the only person around who could step in and save it.

Operator Greg Wood came on board late in 2010 as the Cinerama underwent another renovation that added digital 3D to the theatre’s long list of projection capabilities and updated the lobby and concession stand. The hiring also signaled a re-direction of the Cinerama’s focus. Wood had recently renovated the one-screen Roseway Theater in Portland, Oregon, which was built in 1924. “That’s how they found me. We were doing a lot of things that they wanted to do—reaching out to the community, having an independent feel. I think that caught their eye when they were looking for new operators because Vulcan [Allen’s company] is very Northwest-centric.”

Wood still operates the Roseway and lives in Portland with his family, commuting to Seattle by train. Although he was raised in Los Angeles, where his “whole family was post-production Hollywood,” including a grandfather who founded the Editors Guild, he fell in love with the Northwest while attending college. He quickly determined that exhibition was the only way to stay put and still work in the industry. In 1996, right out of college, he leased his first theatre in Camas, Washington.

During his first year at the Cinerama, Wood experimented with programming. “This is the year we threw all the noodles against the wall to see which ones stuck.” Programs in early 2011 included a series of Kubrick films and a Valentine’s Day film festival. Wood learned that some repertory programming can be done “on the fly,” while others need to be “marketed way in advance.” One thing he is hesitant to do again is show movies on Blu-ray. “We realized people really didn’t like the concept of Blu-rays, no matter what it was, no matter how good it looked,” he says. The movies in question were unavailable in any other format, but that didn’t sway audiences. “It’s amazing to see how astute people are to what they’re watching,” he says.

Wood recently had his first big programming hit. Not surprisingly, it captured the essence of Cinerama’s appeal—a screen so big your eyes have to roam around to capture everything. The Cinerama Big Screen Festival featured 15 widescreen movies, including three-strip Cinerama movies This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won. 70mm prints of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Playtime and Lawrence of Arabia were shown on the curved Cinerama screen using a special lens. Audiences responded. “The two biggest things we’ve done this year have been the last Harry Potter movie and the 70mm festival,” Wood says. “It’s great that we can be successful with both realms.”

The Cinerama operates in the black, but thanks to the patronage of Allen, “the profit generated by the Cinerama is either put back into the Cinerama or donated out to charity. The goal set is much more community-minded and doing fantastic things with the theatre than profits.” Allen’s presence also means the theatre has some unusual perks, like museum-grade display cases that show off his memorabilia collection. During Tron: Legacy, Jeff Bridges’ original Tron suit was in the lobby, and original Planet of the Apes costumes graced the theatre this summer. “They rotate about every three months,” Woods estimates. “People are always emailing us asking us what’s next.”

If people are excited enough about a movie to see it on midnight the day it opens, chances are the Cinerama will do great business. The “event” feel of the space attracts round-the-block lines, and it’s not unusual to see people in costume. “People are really excited for a movie experience that’s not replicated anywhere else,” he says.

One of Wood’s favorite memories is the opening of Tron: Legacy last year, shortly after he came on board as an operator. “Beach balls were going in our audience,” he recalls. “Someone took a Frisbee and turned it into a Tron laser disc. It was really a fun, hip crowd. I had flashbacks to when I would have a great time at old sold-out single screens, surrounded by an exciting crowd giving big applause at the end.”

The 196 people (and counting) who reviewed Cinerama on Yelp, rating the theatre a collective four-and-a half stars, agree. The evaluations have a lot in common, with reviewer after reviewer commenting on how the theatre captures the excitement and magic of moviegoing. People praise the feel of the big-screen experience and the ambiance that comes from a place conceived as a modernist movie palace. The other thing nearly every reviewer mentions is the chocolate popcorn.

“Why you hear so much about it on Yelp and everywhere is when you walk into the lobby, it smells like brownies,” Woods laughs. “Everyone walks in and wonders, ‘What’s that chocolate smell?’ It smells like when you make brownies at your house.” It also helps that the chocolate popcorn, which is cooked up using ingredients from different vendors, can be had for under $5. Wood boasts concession volume a bit stronger than average. “The fact that they see popcorn being made right in front of them and handed to them helps a lot. I do think our concession volume is strong because of quality but also price.”

The Cinerama also features a variety of treats not often found in a movie theatre, all from local Seattle businesses. Full Tilt Ice Cream, vegan Skydottir cookies, Cupcake Royale, Mighty-O Donuts, Theo Chocolate, coffee from Caffé Vita, and local tea vendor Miro Tea give moviegoers an impressive array of treats besides popcorn. Full Tilt and Cupcake Royale have four and five area locations, respectively, while Theo enjoys a niche national distribution. That’s about as big as it gets.

Wood says running a great movie theatre is “simple.” All you need is to have the “best movie presentation possible, hire staff that enjoys what they are doing, and keep prices down.” One of his staffing secrets is a low turnover rate. Wood has been working with his general manager for over a decade. He makes sure to hire people who care about what they’re doing, and feel cared for in return. “We create an environment where people are really trusted and happy. We try to give them a place to go to work that they really like.” He’s also something of a friend matchmaker among his staff—which isn’t to say there isn’t also an occasional romance, too. “We look for certain social skills in everybody,” he says, “and the problem that we usually get into is we create groups that are too close and get too friendly with each other. At the festival, I was talking to one of my girls on my staff, and she said, ‘You know what my problem is? I’m with these people all the time. Even when I’m outside of work, I’m with them,’” he recalls, laughing. “What a great problem to create, right?”

The Cinerama has strong Seattle-area partners to team with on its repertory and festival fare, many of which also have ties to Allen. A movie-and-music festival planned for next year will be done in collaboration with Experience Music Project, a museum founded by Allen, as well as SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival). A sci-fi festival, tentatively planned for March, will also tap into Allen’s interests—the EMP used to have a full sci-fi museum but now has sci-fi exhibitions. For that festival, Wood is looking into creating a new 70mm print for 2011: A Space Odyssey. The Cinerama will also play a greater role during next year’s Seattle Film Festival, which takes place from mid-May to mid-June. Though that’s prime summer box-office time, they plan to open or close the festival in the Cinerama, which boasts 797 seats as well as a balcony section. “We do a lot with SIFF, they are a fantastic organization,” Wood notes.

The Cinerama donates its space for more than just the Seattle Film Festival. A number of nonprofits use the space for galas and fundraisers. Recently, the Pacific Northwest-based World Affairs Council showcased the Christy Turlington documentary No Woman, No Cry, about maternal health, at the theatre. A number of film festivals use the Cinerama space, free of charge, for all or part of their festivals. The National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NIFTY), Seattle Jewish Film Festival (SJFF), Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Film Festival (SFFSFF), NorthWest High School Film Festival (NWHSFF), and Gay & Lesbian Film Festival all make their home in the giant theatre. There are also plans to expand community outreach by doing a weekend kids’ matinee that will charge $2 and a canned food donation.

Running the Cinerama is not without challenges. Its asset—one giant screen—is also its liability. Switching from the giant Cinerama screen to the flat screen used for 35mm and digital projections requires the theatre to close for a couple days. Wood laments the difficulties of distribution, such as how long the Cinerama has to hold movies and getting good deals. Holdover requirements can wreak havoc with existing plans. “It’s hard to find out when you can carve out time to do the repertory titles in a first-run universe,” he acknowledges. With just one screen, an underperforming movie drags down everything. “We’re all at the mercy of Hollywood producing good movies that people want to see. That is the number-one thing in our industry, content.” He notes that nationwide attendance has been declining for a decade. “I think Hollywood needs to look at attendance numbers and figure out what’s wrong there.” His customers want “original stories like Forrest Gump. That’s what we hear from them the most.”

Next year, Wood plans to do a bigger and better three-strip/70mm festival. The programming was so successful there are tentative plans to do one set of programming in April and one in the fall. They’re also “drooling” at the scheduled December 2012 release of The Hobbit. “One of the most successful movies ever at the Cinerama was the Lord of the Rings series” he divulges. This year, they’re going with The Muppets for Thanksgiving and either Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for December.

On one screen, the Cinerama manages to show more diverse content than most multiplexes. With its widescreen classics, today’s crowd-pleasing event blockbusters, and commitment to festivals and special events, the Seattle Cinerama is part of moviegoing’s history and future. “Thanks to the support of Paul Allen, audiences can step back into time and experience the way movie palaces used to be,” Wood reflects. “We all view the Cinerama as Seattle’s living room.”