Re-imagining a Destination Theatre: AMC's Universal Cinema at CityWalk adopts the director's point of view

Cinemas Features

Thirty years ago, on July 1, 1987, Cineplex Odeon opened a theatre just up the hill from Universal Studios Hollywood. It had 18 screens and one IMAX auditorium; total seating capacity was 5,485. Six years later, CityWalk Hollywood, a three-block promenade for dining, shopping and entertainment, was built around it.

In 2007, the cinema became an AMC theatre and stadium seating was added, but as the years moved on, the theatre began to look dated, needing a major renovation.

But what happened to the Universal CityWalk’s AMC Theatre in Hollywood was more fundamental and far-reaching than a simple renovation; the whole exhibition experience was re-imagined from a very different point of view.

Fernando Pa is senior director of design and planning for Universal Creative, the team that develops new attractions for the studio tour and refreshes CityWalk. He was a member of the re-imagination team.

“From our work on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we learned that a fully immersive environment creates an overall feeling beyond what is actually there,” he says. “We asked: What if we extended the immersive environment we created in our park into the cinema?” They were looking to blur the boundaries between the studio tour and the theatre, to create an experience that would seem to uniquely belong there.

“The Universal heritage is storytelling,” Pa explains, “and having a narrative thread is one way to make an experience more entertaining, more enjoyable—and more successful. We have the back lot and the soundstages just down the hill—where directors shoot their movies. So, we re-imagined this cinema as the next chapter in the movie story—as the Directors’ Screening Room, where our guests—‘the directors’—come to see their movie for the first time.”

Two challenges: to be sure the idea would “scale”—that it would work for a wide audience in a working cinema; and that it would translate to all parts of the experience.

“The theatre is operated by AMC and they’re the experts in operating a theatre,” Pa observes. “We worked with them to make sure we weren’t just offering design solutions, but that we were offering pragmatic solutions. Our designs not only had to look good, they had to work 365 days a year.”

They began at the beginning.

“The entryway is where we make our first impression, so we made that very open, airy and welcoming,” Pa says. “Guests buy their tickets at a concierge desk; no more looking through a glass, listening to someone talk to you over a speaker. And it’s all indoors, to elevate the experience.”

The AMC Marketplace concept makes the whole concession area more personal, easier, more upscale. There’s specialty popcorn, Coke freestyle machines, gourmet foods, fruit smoothies, and café-style coffees—with lots of self-service. “It’s a full selection of what guests like,” Pa says, “because if you were a director, that’s what you’d expect. This is how you’d be treated.”

All seats are reserved, so there’s no rush to get to the auditorium early. “Again, if you were a director, you’d want to sit and relax with your friends—before you went into your screening room,” notes Pa. “And so on both floors we created comfortable conversation areas and we brought in klieg lights, props and costumes for upcoming movies to enhance the feeling that guests are industry insiders.”

There are two conversation areas downstairs and two upstairs—plus a Director’s Lounge on the second floor where those 21 and over can grab a drink before or after the movie. The Lounge has a full-service bar, lots of comfortable chairs for conversation and relaxation—and in the world mural and LED starbursts on the ceiling, subtle reminders of the Universal brand.

“When you’re sitting in the Director’s Lounge, it feels like you’re in an open living room,” Pa explains, “but when you go into an auditorium, it’s a very contained environment. So they’re two distinctly different—but connected—experiences. It was a challenge to get that balance right.”

The 19 auditoriums (including IMAX) were conceived as “black boxes”—because all-black walls, seats, speakers and flooring reduce light interference. They’re served by seven projection rooms where projectors were repositioned and power panels upgraded. New projection pods were added to the balconies of the two largest screens to reduce projector keystoning.

Screen sizes range from 30 by 16 feet to 51 by 26 feet. There’s also an 80 by 60-foot IMAX screen with film and Barco laser projection. The other 18 screens have Christie RGB laser projectors with Dolby Atmos sound and Christie Vive speakers.

“A director would want the best,” Pa observes, “a leather reclining seat, laser projection, an immersive audio system—and because that’s what a director would have, our cinema gives our guests that experience.”

All houses have 32-inch deluxe recliner seats with retractable leg rests. Loveseat recliners are 59 inches wide. Two auditoriums have balconies. The original 5,485 seats have been reduced to about 2,000. It’s more plush, more comfortable.

“Our black-box concept lets you really focus on the movie without distractions—because that’s how a director would screen it,” Pa says. “It’s all about the content and you should be able to experience that at the highest-quality level.”

The cinema chose Christie RGB laser projectors for their 4K image quality. “RGB is true laser,” says Scott McCallum, account manager, entertainment solutions for Christie. “It allows filmmakers to use a wider color gamut and to significantly increase the contrast ratio. RGB laser projectors are brighter, sharper, more stable and reliable. One of the reasons to go with them is also to improve the 3D experience. Instead of having a low-light 3D experience, they have the capability to go much higher.”

The Universal Cinema shows 3D at 10 foot-lamberts; 11 of the 18 main auditoriums are 3D-capable.

“And the Christie RBG system is modular; each module is a 4,500-lumen to 5,500-lumen building block of light,” McCallum explains. “In the Universal installation, there are two-module, three-module, four-module, and seven-module configurations; on the two large screens that show 3D, they’re using 12 modules—six for each eye. Our modular approach meant that we were able to provide the light output they needed without compromise.”

“Universal’s goal was to create a premium cinema experience with the ability to play back studio-grade reference-quality audio that delivers on the director’s intent,” says Stuart Bowling, director, content and creative relations, at Dolby laboratories. “And so they specified 100-percent Dolby Atmos across all 18 screens in the complex.”

Dolby Atmos helps to intensify the emotional experience the director has created. “Each auditorium is a different size and configuration,” explains Bowling. “The small ones each have about 20 surround speakers; in the larger auditoriums, there are 40 to 60 surrounds—in addition to the screen speakers.We also installed subwoofers to make the surrounds full-range—so when a sound comes off the screen and moves to a surround, we maintain tonality of frequency range.”

All 18 screens use the Christie Vive Audio system with enhanced digital signal processing. “The DNA of our program is the ribbon-driver technology with small transducer speakers with a line array that has a curve to it,” says Patrick Artiaga, Christie’s director of business development, audio. “Because of the articulated design, we’re able to control how audio is spread and better focus it at the seats—where the audience is. Because of our speaker design, we can minimize bounce and echo. And because of our ribbon-driver technology, what the director mixed is what the audience hears. That combination of coverage, directivity and output makes Christie Vive unique in the marketplace.”

And why Universal chose it.

“There was a whole set of expectations associated with the moviegoing experience that we wanted to rethink,” Pa says. “We wanted to break the boundaries between making the movie—and screening the movie. Because a director would do both.”

“The biggest thing here,” says Bowling, “is…flat-bang in the middle of the entertainment capital of the world, Universal has built the first and largest cinema complex with all Christie RGB laser projectors, with the Christie Vive sound system, and with Dolby Atmos moving audio in all 18 houses. And it’s delivering an incredible moviegoing experience.”

The work was done in stages; some areas were renovated while others stayed operational. When the fully re-imagined theatre opened, it was rebranded Universal Cinema.

“We have that special studio connection that we can leverage for our guests’ benefit and I’m proud we did that,” says Pa. “We were able to remain true to the Universal brand—but extend it in a unique and creative way. We’re offering our guests a premium cinema experience from a director’s point of view.”