No booth? No problem! All-digital cinema takes new approach to theatre design

Features

“Why do we need a projection booth?” was the question posed by John Schweiger, owner of Coming Attractions Theatres.

The Design Collective was in the process of designing the all-digital Midway Cinema, located in Chehalis, Washington. Without traditional film projection, other design considerations began to take precedence over creating the typical space and access required for a booth. There also appeared to be a simple construction cost benefit to eliminating the mezzanine space needed for a booth.

In reality, the omission of the projection booths created some complications, but ultimately provided opportunity for a theatre design that was not only less expensive to build and maintain, but created a better experience for the patron. Since the Midway Cinema’s opening in October 2008, it has been one of Coming Attractions’ highest-grossing theatres.

Though a movie theatre typically has projection booths located on a second floor or mezzanine, the Chehalis theatre was being converted from a drug store and the height limitations made the booth-less design concept ideal. The projectors were instead encased in small pods high in the corridor. The new M-series projectors by Christie were used because of their compact design, although larger projectors with larger pods were used for the 3D theatres.

The elimination of the mezzanine, however, affected all aspects of the cinema design. The pods, of course, need structural support, so trash alcoves were created on the main floor to accommodate the structural need with a functional one. Along the corridor, “cloud” lay-in ceilings were designed to allow enough room for a lift in the rare event that one of the projectors needed to be replaced. The projectors are also easily accessed from the back row of the auditorium for routine maintenance, and controlled from a centralized location on the main floor rather than individually. Because the mezzanine was eliminated, some rooms that are typically located above (i.e., offices, storage, break rooms, etc.) had to be included on the first floor.

Despite the unusual features of the Midway Cinema design, The Design Collective strove to turn every oddity into an advantage in terms of cost as well as the experience of the space. With the elimination of stairs, structure, finishes, ceilings, lighting and HVAC associated with a mezzanine, construction costs were reduced by six percent. Because the pods were much smaller than a projection booth, the port windows could be lifted higher into the auditorium. This resulted in higher stadium seating, which of course means better viewing for the patrons of the theatre. The auditoriums could also be designed closer back-to-back, which allowed for additional rows of seating. The sound racks were placed behind the screen in the auditoriums, which reduced the cable requirements for the speakers. The partial lay-in ceiling added a unique design element to the corridor, and the trash alcoves effectively added variation to the perspective of the space to assist with way-finding. Offices, storage and break rooms were incorporated into the main floor layout without sacrificing the experience of the patron or creating security issues.

Another benefit of the completed design was a reduction in operational costs. There were substantial energy savings from reducing the amount of heating, cooling and lighting that would otherwise be used for the mezzanine. The centralized location of the servers means that one person can effectively operate the projectors, which minimizes the staff required at the cinema. Having the functional spaces on a single floor allows employees to complete normal tasks of operating the theatre without spending a lot of time running up and down the stairs to adjust a server or projector.

One noted drawback is that the projection pods are less comfortable and convenient to access for routine maintenance, but the infrequency of the task makes the benefits of the projector pod outweigh the associated difficulties. The design also required flexibility from the mechanical and electrical engineers. Typically a projection booth is used as a sound buffer for the mechanical rooftop units, and pressurized air from the auditoriums is vented through the booth. Creative solutions had to be developed to accommodate these issues. Additional cooling from a unit capable of 24/7 operation was also needed for the server rooms to remain a comfortable temperature.

The movie theatre industry is at the crossroads of the digital conversion, the most significant change to the exhibition of film in 100 years. What does this mean to the design and construction of the cinema? Will the booth become extinct? Asking the right questions and finding creative solutions to accommodate this new technology will keep the cinema industry profitable while ensuring the best entertainment at the theatre. In Chehalis, the answer to the question “Why do we need a projection booth?” was a simple “We don’t”!

Scott Hicks of American Cinema Equipment and Brad Reynolds of West Davidson Reynolds contributed to this article. James Blissett is an architect who has been designing cinemas for the last 14 years and is founder of The Design Collective in Seattle, Washington. (www.theD-C.com)