Cinematic Layover: Movie theatres in airports are taking flight

Cinemas Features

Going to a movie: Fun. Eating a nice meal with your friends: Fun. Going to a concert: Fun. Waiting at an airport for your plane to arrive... less than fun, at least for myself and, I would hazard, most of my fellow travelers. Air travel is stressful, it’s uncomfortable, it’s boring. But for many, it’s also a necessary part of life, and the right airport amenities can help jazz up an otherwise unpleasant few hours.

Increasingly, those amenities have expanded from the standard restaurants, bookstores and business centers to include airport movie theatres. A familiar refrain at this point, it’s a trend that started in forward-thinking Asian markets, with airports in Hong Kong, Singapore, Delhi and Seoul currently boasting full theatres that play the newest blockbusters.

Though it may be novel to U.S. consumers, for Hong Kong-based UA Cinemas, the idea of having a movie theatre in an airport isn’t “new” at all. Their UA IMAX Airport location, boasting the world’s first airport IMAX screen, has been in operation in the Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 2 since all the way back in 2012. Before then, UA Cinemas managing director Ivan Wong explains, it was a 4D cinema run by another operator; that operator’s lease expired, the Airport Authority got in touch with UA Cinemas, and bam, “an IMAX Theatre was installed. From the very beginning to the launch of IMAX took about three years.”

UA Cinemas’ Hong Kong airport location has all the amenities you would expect from a high-quality theatre. The single screen boasts 350 seats, and “the screen and the projector are from IMAX, to ensure professional quality,” says Wong. All the traditional concessions favorites are available, from popcorn and soda to nachos and hot dogs. In terms of operation, Wong explains, “there’s not much difference” between the theatre and its more traditional brethren.

Things aren’t so uncomplicated in North America, where the airport movie theatre is still in its infancy. The continent’s first airport theatre, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s See 18 screening room, opened its doors in April 2014. The second takes its maiden voyage in the Portland International Airport in February of this year. It’s the offshoot of Portland, Oregon’s nonprofit Hollywood Theatre, a local institution since the 1920s.

Doug Whyte, executive director at the Hollywood Theatre, recalls that he was inspired by a New York Times article about the Hong Kong airport cinema to approach the Portland airport’s public-art program about a theatre of their own. They’d already had the same thought, but “they hadn’t gotten anywhere… So right from the get-go, we were both excited about the idea. And that was about three years ago. So it’s taken a while to have this all come together.”

While the UA IMAX Airport was built in a space specifically designed for a theatre, its North American brethren had to move into an old business center (Portland) and a sleeping area for overnight travelers (Minneapolis-St. Paul); both theatres are supported by local institutions, instead of being money-making enterprises run by a private business. (As such, Whyte notes, they’re not permitted to sell concessions, though travelers can bring in whatever they purchase from other vendors.) “Space comes at a premium at any airport,” explains Robyne Robinson, director of Arts@MSP, the arts and culture program of the Airport Foundation MSP. Once the space was secured, “getting See 18 up and running took no time, but converting traditional ideas about an airport’s purpose has taken a little longer. Gate agents have had to unlearn directing overnight travelers to the theatre to sleep. They’ve also had to adjust to films playing 24/7. But the room has rotating walls to contain sound, and we monitor volume with decibel apps to keep it adjusted at an agreeable level.”

Aside from sound and space, there’s another “s” that’s a concern at any airport: security. That was a big issue for the Hollywood Theatre’s Portland airport location, which was designed to provide a state-of-the-art experience. “We’ve gotten a lot of sponsors coming in,” explains Whyte. “Originally, we were going to have a nice, big LED screen and probably a thousand-dollar sound system or something.” But Barco, local company Triad Speakers and CEDIA, a trade organization for the home technology market, stepped up to the plate to donate everything the theatre needs, from speakers to the screen to the high-end Barco projector. Whyte clarifies that these materials are more accurately “on loan. We can use it, and then they might want to replace it with the best, newest, greatest thing they just came out with.” The theatre gets cutting-edge equipment, and the companies get advertising and exposure, piped straight to the estimated 16 million travelers the Portland airport serves every year. “For them, it’s like a demo room,” Whyte explains. “They’re giving us their highest-end stuff, because they want everyone to be impressed by what they have to offer, and then hopefully purchase it from them down the line.”

If you’re wondering how that relates to security, the answer is that installation means construction, and construction is a whole different ballgame if you’re doing it in an airport. “If you’re going to work in the airport, you have to be badged,” Whyte notes. “You have to go through that whole process, and anybody who hasn’t gone through that process needs to be escorted. Trying to bring equipment or anything else, you have to have another special escort or badge on your car to get through. Literally anybody involved in the project, from the architect to the contractor to the electrician to the painter. It’s all just a little bit more complicated because of the high security.” On top of that, airports never close, “so if you’re doing anything that makes noise, you have to do it in the middle of the night, when there aren’t as many people there.”

When I spoke to Whyte, the Portland airport theatre was just about to install its marquee, a scaled-down version of the one that graces its parent theatre. “The marquee is really big, and the only way to get it in is through the front door. So we’re showing up next week and literally rolling it through the front entrance. It has to go through TSA—they have to inspect it to make sure it’s all kosher and safe. Many of us have not worked in a situation like that.” Whyte recalls giving a presentation on the then-upcoming theatre at Art House Convergence, after which several theatres called him up, interested in doing the same thing in their cities. “I was trying to tell them how complicated it is and how long it takes to do this. It’s much more than I ever thought. I never thought three years later I’d be working on this, trying to get it open.”

For all the unforeseen hurdles, Whyte is excited about the theatre and its ability to both entertain travelers and serve as an unofficial promotion vehicle for vendors and the Hollywood Theatre itself. And filmmakers, of course. Whereas UA Airport Theatre in Hong Kong screens the latest features—as of press time, the single screen alternated between The LEGO Batman Movie and La La Land—both the Hollywood Theatre’s airport location and the See 18 stick to a program of short films of local interest. “You have to be in an airport that has these long layovers” to screen features, Whyte explains. “It doesn’t make any sense in Portland. No one would go watch a two-hour movie.” The Portland theatre has a program of 10 to 15 films that will be switched out every quarter; See 18 has a 50-film program, per Robinson “structured so you don’t see the same films over and over in the same rotation,” that will be refreshed yearly.

Robinson and Whyte alike are particularly proud to be able to support local directors of short films, whom Robinson points out “don’t get the opportunity to have widespread screenings of their work” the way feature directors do. A whole assortment of genres is represented at the See 18 and the Portland airport theatres, among them animated shorts, short documentaries and music-videos. One thing all the shorts must have in common, explains Robinson, is that they must be “family-friendly and airport-friendly—no excessive violence, no strong language, no negative images or themes about aviation.” While Whyte admits that keeping things strictly G-rated is a limitation—he chuckles that “independent filmmakers have dark minds a lot of times”—he notes that Portland has a thriving enough arts community that “there’s no shortage of content being submitted.”