Choosing conversions: Retail spaces offer cost-effective opportunities for cinema owners


During the current economic downturn, there are conversion opportunities for the many theatre owners who are looking to expand their circuit. The closings of numerous large retail stores have resulted in the abundance of vacant spaces in prime locations. Many theatre owners are now looking at the conversion of these recently vacated spaces as a cost-effective alternative to ground-up construction for new movie theatre developments.

There are substantial cost-saving opportunities relating to land development, site work, incoming utility services, and building construction costs. These construction costs include foundation work, concrete slab on grade, structural framing, roof systems and exterior wall construction.

However, with this opportunity come challenges. Each conversion project presents the design challenge of developing a movie theatre within an existing building not originally intended for movie theatre use. Potential obstacles such as structural column spacing, roof height and foundations present the biggest challenges. The goal is to find seamless solutions to these challenges.

The first step is working with the operator to define a comprehensive program for the theatre development that includes the appropriate size and quantity of auditoriums tailored to the needs of the exhibitor. Once the program is established, the development of the theatre begins. During the initial plan development, obstacles—particularly those affecting the development of the auditoriums—are identified and cost-effective solutions are proposed.

Typically, the greatest obstacles for a successful conversion are the existing dimensions of the building’s structural elements. For example, the development of larger auditoriums is possible in buildings with closely spaced column bays by removing columns and installing transfer beams. When the height of the existing roof structure limits the opportunities for stadium seating or screen size, the existing roof can be raised or the screen ends of the auditoriums can be excavated to provide the required heights. With any proposed solution, it is important to establish the associated costs, so as not to lose the overall economy of working with the existing building.

Next is the development of the support elements of the theatre including the box office, concessions, toilet facilities and any other additional features that may be requested by the exhibitor. The features are developed and located with the focus on appropriate size visibility and operational flows, all within the confines of the existing space.

Finally, the exterior of the existing building is completely transformed to establish the brand and image for the new theatre. A unique design image is created that begins with the entrance of the building and is carried through the inside elements.

The result is a transformation of an existing space into a brand-new movie theatre that is indistinguishable from any ground-up facility, at a substantially reduced cost.

Case Study: Cinema Center, Camp Hill, PA

The new multiplex for the central Pennsylvania theatre chain was previously a vacant department store. After some substantial demolition, all remaining 52,000 square feet of the existing roof structure was raised 12 feet to accommodate the building’s new life as a cinema. The reconfiguration of the structure allowed for the creation of a premier auditorium with more than 400 seats. The final product is a dazzling 12-screen stadium-seating multiplex. The new façade is clad with backlit perforated aluminum panels accented with illuminated signage and neon.

Case Study: The Frank Theatre, Rio Grande, NJ

The Frank Theatre in Rio Grande, New Jersey is the conversion of an existing vacant retail space into a 34,000-square-foot, 13-screen stadium-seating movie theatre. To keep construction costs to a minimum, all 13 auditoriums were developed without modifications to the existing building structure. Auditoriums range in size from 90 seats to 165 seats. A tropical flare was introduced to the design of this shore theatre, giving it a sense of presence within the existing retail center. A wave-like canopy, decorative signage and lighting elements all contribute to this identity.

For more advice on retail conversions, visits architects/designers JKR Partners LLC at