High Five: Studio Collaborative counts down trends in entertainment design

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“Consumer demand for more exciting and engaging entertainment experiences is generating more growth.” Mike Voegtle, partner at 5G Studio Collaborative, names the reason behind the manifold changes that movie theatres have been going through of late.

Earlier this year, 5G Studio Collaborative set up a division dedicated exclusively to entertainment design and architectural “programming” of spaces in sports, gaming—and cinema, of course. In addition to Voegtle, who has guided the firm’s work for leading chains during eight of the last ten years since its founding, the new Entertainment Studio counts on veteran architect Rick Walker as division director.

“We are really trying to make places where people want to be,” Walker says. He draws a line to “back in the day” when films were the main attraction and theatre design was all about getting guests in and out of the auditoriums efficiently. “Now we are trying to attract people with amenities besides the movies. The films are still there, of course, but there are other avenues of attracting people.”

Based in Dallas, Texas–5G Studio also has offices in Atlanta, Georgia; Miami, Florida; and Jakarta, Indonesia–Walker brings three decades of experience in theatrical exhibition, including many years for Cinemark. Voegtle used to work for Walker, in fact. “Rick was my boss at a previous firm that was doing a lot of traditional cinema design,” he says about learning “the ins and outs of how to build a movie theatre” some 20 to 25 years ago. That experience, Voegtle further notes, provided the basis when he started to draw up theatre plans at his own company back in 2007.

“Cinema eateries were just starting to pick up traction specifically in the Southwest,” he recalls. “They were really big in Dallas and I worked on projects for folks like Movie Tavern, Studio Movie Grill and Alamo Drafthouse.” After Voegtle merged his company with 5G Studio, “we started to talk about how to expand that overall entertainment experience” at the movie theatre. “Having Rick bring his experience to our group really opened many doors for us to expand on that experience and really helped us grow…the entertainment sector at 5G Studio.”

In line with the firm’s name, Film Journal International takes the occasion of November’s special focus on Design, Construction and Lobbies to have Voegtle and Walker review five key trends that are shaping the filmgoing experience. Not surprisingly, given our own track record, this publication has reported on one and all many times before.

Cuisine, Craft Beers & Cocktails

Beginning with “Dinner at the Movies” seems appropriate—not only because the concept of in-theatre dining has filled our magazine’s menu with many delicious recipes over the years, but also because Mike Voegtle was in on the development right from the get-go. “We understand how cinema eateries work architecturally,” he assures. “How the food and beverage service works, how the service inside the auditoriums functions. There are totally different models of how to do this and we understand those very well.”

Walker adds that the experience is no longer about the food during the movie alone. “Why not have a restaurant [as] part of this deal?” he reports many exhibitors as asking. “After all, we have food you can eat in the dark and then there are items you might not want to eat in the dark that we could serve on the other side.” Exhibitors are dedicating more and more space, time and resources to full-service restaurants with bars and lounges complementing the lineup, Walker says. “We are really trying to create a place with a lot of warmth and the type of offering that is a bit more geared towards adults, by comparison to the kinds of theatres in the past which were really more aimed at the teenage crowds.”

Obviously the concept of theatre dining has been expanding, and we are not just talking about footprint here, but also about menus and moviegoer palates. “And because of that, the design palette has changed as well” towards what Voegtle calls more of a hospitality product. “Much of the new interiors for theatres are coming directly out of our Interior Design Studio,” he says, naming another advantage that 5G has to offer. The firm also does resorts and hospitality venues, as well as public and residential, commercial and lifestyle developments. “It is really that particular team and that experience, and the talent that we have, which is helping shape the spaces that we are designing.” For Voegtle, “being able to take that traditional theatre experience that Rick and I have along with 5G Studio’s hospitality and restaurant experience provides a product to our clients that is very unique.”

Lobbies & Lounges

The lobby is a great place to show uniqueness, Voegtle agrees. “Traditionally, movie-theatre lobbies were sized to accommodate people waiting to get inside the auditoriums, as well as standing in line for concessions. As more and more exhibitors are adopting the reserved-seating model, less lobby space is dedicated to people actually waiting in line. More food offerings in the auditoriums require less of the traditional concession stand that you would normally see,” he continues. “So the theatre lobby uses are much different. Those spaces are becoming lounges and places that people visit and want to hang out in.”

Voegtle points to higher-end bars that offer craft beers and cocktails. “People go there just for a night out on the town that sometimes does not even involve seeing a movie.” In his view, that represents “the main difference in the approach that we take now. This new lobby is less geared towards the pre-functionality of the movie itself. Instead, more attention is paid to how it can operate as a standalone revenue-generating space for the exhibitor.”

Overall ease of flow remains an integral part of that view, Walker concurs. “We used to be really careful making sure that people exiting the shows were not getting across the lines of people trying to get inside. Nowadays, we are purposefully redesigning spaces to funnel everyone back towards the lobby, hopefully through a gaming space or entertainment center, and back to the bar area. Our goal as designers and architects is to make all offers visible and have them be integral to that lobby space itself.” That goal applies to both new construction and adapting existing spaces.

Rising Roof Lines & Reclining Seats

“On the retrofits versus new builds,” Voegtle and the 5G Studio team “are seeing a split in the market, depending on location and the area.” Definitely on the rise are retrofits and adaptive reuse of existing retail, such as vacant department and grocery stores that offer the “necessary ceiling heights that make them good candidates for theatre conversions.” As an architect and designer, “a new build obviously allows us much more flexibility,” he contends. “But the retrofits are interesting too because we have to get extremely creative. I believe that the upfront program aspect of these spaces is one of the things that our group has been really good at–how to be utilizing that existing space in a way to maximize revenue for our clients.” Voegtle believes the firm’s “value proposition also includes partnering with our exhibitors and to help them build their new centers in the most economical way possible.”

In each case, there are unique sets of challenges. “Working around an existing structure and raising roof areas where applicable and re-facing buildings on the outside are actually more challenging than a new build where we can do anything we want and all that we think is right.” Nonetheless, we will be seeing more retrofits, Walker and Voegtle foresee, “especially as we are seeing recliners being installed in theatres. They lose at least half the seats and more often upwards of 60%. These smaller-capacity auditoriums help us in retrofits because these department-store type facilities usually do not have the space for the large auditoriums and giant screens.”

Again, a major change can be noted. Voegtle reminds our readers that theatres are no longer designed for maximum capacity and for fitting in as many people per square foot/meter as possible. “We have about half a dozen or more conversion projects on our drawing boards that involve taking out existing seating, reworking stadium rakes, and installing extra-wide and reclining lounger chairs.” It is about offering guests a better experience. “People can go anywhere to watch movies,” he knows. “So exhibitors want to make sure that what they provide is more appealing than what the competition offers.”

The proof is in the profit pudding, Walker assures. “Theatres are charging the same price as they charged before. They are packing their auditoriums and they are actually making more money even though they have reduced the actual seat count.” This no longer represents an attempt at creating a competitive niche in the marketplace, both architects feel. “It started to feel like the norm,” Voegtle believes. “Everybody understands that in order to remain competitive, you’ve got to at least meet that standard now.” “It is a necessity,” Walker agrees, “because other exhibitors are also trying to adapt in order to equalize the market…just to keep up. Guests start to expect that type of experience rather than the same old go-sit-in-the-chair-and-eat-popcorn way again.” He cannot “remember the last time we have done just a traditional auditorium with a 22/23-inch [58 cm] fixed seat, without some other offering to enhance that experience.”

Movie Screens & Mezzanines

Enhancing picture sizes remains a big part of the upmarket mix. Exhibitors continue to “maximize their auditorium viewing screens,” Voegtle confirms. “Sometimes more for perception maybe than in reality,” he has observed. “We are seeing many more floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall screens, even though the image…may not necessarily fill the entire surface. But when moviegoers walk into an auditorium seeing that large screen, they are wowed.” Presentation format matters, especially those that give “everybody an edge up on 3D capabilities on the big releases like Star Wars and similar types of product where people want to see it on the biggest screen possible.”

With the advent of digital, it also became possible to place the projector inside the auditorium. “Seven, eight years ago, there was a push to eliminate the idea of a traditional mezzanine.” Voegtle feels some are doing this better than others. “I think many exhibitors have concerns about moving away from the projection mezzanine. And, indeed, it does make operations a heck of a lot easier when you have one, even with digital.” Walker believes “we have pushed away the myth that if you do not build the mezzanine, your building is going to be cheaper… After all, that mezzanine not only is a place to put your equipment but the place to run all of the infrastructure. When a theatre does not have that…you have to get really creative about where everything goes, how to run it across the entire building. You end up spending a lot of money solving problems that you did not have when there was a mezzanine. So, I just do not believe in the myth that you save money by not building a projection mezzanine, because you spend it somewhere else.” Going boothless helps, however, during the conversions of existing spaces.

Evolving Entertainment

One such conversion is at the heart of a current project by the 5G Entertainment Studio team. And it covers the final of our five trends. “We have several folks on board that have done quite a few entertainment centers,” Voegtle elaborates. “Traditional movie theatres are expanding their offering to include attractions like bowling, gaming, arcade games. We also have companies that want to expand on their dinner-and-a-movie concept with ancillary activities.” The common goal for all is “building a better box for the customer from an experience standpoint.”

Walker says “The Spot” in San Marcos, Texas, does just that: hitting the spot. “While it has a smaller movie section of six auditoriums that probably seat about 50 people each, the venue does come with eight lanes of bowling. Everything looks more like a nightclub with a large bar, food service and several event rooms that guests can rent–all in 34,000-square-foot [3,160 sq. m] conversion of a former department store.” The project was developed by Mitchell Roberts of EVO Entertainment, whose evolutionary ideas were just featured in our September 2015 issue. “He has a vision of expanding this type of venue and taking them more mainstream,” Walker attests.

“Entertainment and cinema design is continually evolving as leisure destinations that span generations,” Walker concludes. Entertainment companies–and that is exactly what exhibitors have always been–are “always searching for innovative and new ways to reach and retain their customers, among all age demographics.”