Green Schemes: More theatres incorporate environmentally friendly designs and products


Movie theatres have been undergoing dramatic architectural changes in the past few decades. First, the rise of multiplexes expanded theatre properties, then the popularity of stadium seating forced exhibitors to gut those auditoriums and start fresh. The conversion to digital projection will require minimal design changes, paving the way for the next big architectural trend: going green.

What it means to “go green” has changed dramatically since the environmental movement first caught on in the ’60s and ’70s. When it comes to building a movie theatre, going green is less about an overall mindset and more about achieving specific benchmarks in categories such as energy reduction, use of local and recycled materials, and practices during construction. Ted Benning, president of Benning Construction in Smyrna, Georgia, describes the shift as one from a “faith-doctrine, religious-zealous point of view to: ‘How do we make this thing work on a day-to-day basis?’”

For movie theatres, that means going green can be accomplished with attention to the bottom line. Many green choices, like lighting and computerized HVAC systems with oxygen sensors, turn profitable within a few years or less. Others, like solar power, require more of a capital investment but come with generous tax benefits that can make them pay off much sooner. Going green can be done at a level that matches a company’s goals and resources.

“Sometimes people think that if they’re going to go green, it’s either all or nothing,” notes Mark Goins, a project manager at design firm Artech in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “They think their theatre needs to be made out of recycled bamboo. People get a sense that it means something extreme, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that different than what they’re used to.”

Dave Corkill, president of the California circuit Cinema West, strongly believes in investing in his company’s future. Early this year, the company plans to install solar panels on the roof of its Palladio theatre in Fulsom, CA, making it the third of the company’s locations to go solar. The first, in Fairfax, CA, earned the title of “first multiplex to go solar,” and its Livermore, CA, theatre boasts the largest solar installation on a movie theatre in the world. The Palladio will feature an even bigger solar installation once its panels are installed, taking the title away from Livermore. For Corkill, solar is a clear-cut choice with economic and marketing benefits. “If they knew all that we know, everybody would do it,” Corkill explains.

While Corkill estimates that solar installations can take seven to ten or more years to pay off without tax incentives, he expects his to have a net benefit within a few years. Federal, state and local governments offer generous incentives, and the government provides an additional “accelerated depreciation” that dramatically reduces taxable income. In the cast of Cinema West, tax incentives covered about 60% of the system cost (30% federal, 30% California state and local). The “accelerated depreciation” let Corkill discount the cost of a solar system (say, $1 million) by half the first year. Under that depreciation schedule, $500,000 in income becomes zero. If you do your homework, solar systems pay off.

“Everyone that has a business today that thinks they’re going to have a business in the next five years should be putting a solar system on the roof of their building,” Corkill enthuses. “At the end of the day, if you have the knowledge of what the overall picture is, including the tax incentives, it makes too much sense.”

Adding to the benefit, the recession has created a surplus in solar panel inventory. Corkill expects the solar panels for the Palladio theatre will cost 30% less than they did two years ago. The movie business, which so far has proven recession-proof, is perfectly poised to take advantage of the lower prices.

The recession discount extends to all building materials. Mike Cummings, a LEED AP principal at TK Architects in Kansas City, Missouri, agrees that the economic downturn is a boon for those buying materials. “There’s less demand and there’s inventory to get rid of, which has driven prices in general down.” Moving beyond the recession, rising energy costs and competition for natural resources make switches to energy-saving technology and recycled materials a wise investment.

“I think everyone is concerned about what is going to happen with energy costs, but people know they’re not going to go down,” Cummings continues. “Any savings that you get today will be worth more next year and the year after that. When Walmart starts doing something [like retrofit for energy savings], people pay attention, because they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t make some kind of financial sense.”

Agreeing that the price of energy can only go up, Benning predicts that “lowering operational costs is going to be a trend of the future.” In his own backyard, Atlanta, “we have a huge water war going on between Georgia and Florida, about who has rights to the water. Now there’s fear that we won’t have the water we need to sustain the growth that we’ve had. The idea of conservation of resources and energy is going to be a big trend.”

With the writing on the wall, manufacturers have developed green alternatives to traditional materials. All of the architects interviewed for this article speak to the increasing prevalence of green materials. “This has just been in the last five years,” Cummings points out. “Before, the materials were much more expensive, with not nearly the selection.”

“We’re seeing drywall and things like that becoming environmentally friendly, and many manufacturers using recycled content, going to low-VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint,” Goins observes. “It’s gotten to a point where the low-VOC paint is easier to purchase and more common than the other.” It also can help make a better first impression on opening day. “The new-building smell isn’t really good for you,” Goins quips.

Many green products attempt to reduce harmful chemicals—the kind that may eventually be phased out or proven unsafe. “I don’t want to be in a position five years from now where somebody comes and says, ‘You knew I was putting all this harmful stuff in my building, why didn’t you tell me?’” Cummings speculates. “Like the switch to low-VOC paints and adhesives. We’ve got to advise our clients about the kinds of materials that they are putting into their buildings, and the effects it can have on their customers and occupants—even the liability that it can open up.”

Using local, recycled materials and keeping the job site free of dust and harmful chemicals is one aspect of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a set of standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Buildings that follow LEED practices receive points and are rated as certified, silver, gold, or platinum, the highest level. Though LEED certification can be an expensive, red-tape-filled process that Goins estimates will cost around $40,000, it can pay off as a marketing tool, in tax breaks for LEED-certified buildings, or as a quality-control check that ensures the building’s green elements are performing as designed. Most architectural firms have LEED AP (Accredited Professional) architects to help guide the green building process, even if a theatre decides against the LEED certification route.

For those looking for a quick fix, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to go green for both new construction and retrofitting is lighting. Most theatre owners should skip over compact fluorescent bulbs and go straight to LED, which has improved dramatically in both quality and pricing. Along with saving energy, these long-lasting fixtures offer particular value when used in auditoriums, which often require labor-intensive scaffolding in order to change bulbs.

Besides lasting longer and being less bulky, LED has technological advantages over fluorescents. Mississippi-based Franklin Designs and Missouri-based Schult have both introduced LED retrofits for poster cases which have drawn considerable interest in the theatre community. Unlike fluorescents, which can tinge blue or yellow, the LED light is white. While fluorescents flicker in cold weather, LEDs have a temperature rating that covers all outdoor weather, says Franklin sales rep Regina Shipman. Like most lighting retrofits, the switch pays off within a very short time frame. Schult’s new LED “smartbrite” product line and Franklin’s “Think Green” lighting each provide up to 90% in energy savings over traditional fluorescent cases and signs.

Many common fixtures now have energy-saving LED alternatives. LED strips in concession stands, for example, prevent the goodies from melting. While many theatres have switched to television screens to display their concession price lists, LED TV screens use a fraction of the energy—along with an enviously slender profile. LED neon has also emerged as an alternative to energy-guzzling neon. Cinema West’s new Palladio theatre boasts a half-mile of LED neon that uses 10% of the power of real neon.

Labeling your theatres “green” can generate a further return on energy-saving investments. For its solar-powered theatres, Cinema West has a lobby display with an LED TV screen that shows the amount of power being produced by the system and its carbon offsets. “The graph goes up or down depending on how much power is being fed into the grid at a particular time. It’s an interesting thing to watch,” Corkill explains.

The solar panels also received a thumbs-up at the Livermore location, where the downtown association has been encouraging other businesses to install solar systems and energy-saving measures. “The public want to support businesses that are green, and if you tell them yours is green, they’re more likely to come to you. Spending that money not only provided a way to save power, but it also provided a great way to market ourselves.”

Corkill compares the solar conversion to digital projection, a technological change the company undertook with similar speed and decisiveness. “We were one of the first companies to go out into the marketplace when the deal was made with distributors to put digital projectors in. Three years ago, we updated our theatres to have digital projection, and we no longer have film. We’ve already been there, done that, with that particular subject.”
More exhibitors are interested in doing their homework about going green. Last year, NATO held a ShoWest University session on green initiatives that was attended by around 50 people. This year, Kathy Conroy and Brigitte Buehlman of NATO are planning a full environmental seminar at ShoWest expected to draw 1,000 people.

When it comes to going green, Corkill advocates being ahead of the curve. “With solar power right now, most people in our business are not even thinking about it. They’re thinking about digital projection. At this point in time, we’re actively looking at having our theatres be 100% solar and having that step behind us. We spend our time and energy and resources on the next step to keep our theatres competitive and to move forward into the new era we’ll all be facing.”

When asked about the extra cost of installing such technology at an early stage, Corkill instead points out how technological upgrades have boosted revenue. “We’ve had three years of extra income because our competitors didn’t put digital projection in, and with the extra costs we had three years ago we received multiples of extra revenue because of being properly positioned at the forefront of the technology instead of following everyone else into it.

“We presently have more 3D screens per complex than any other theatre company in the U.S., and that’s exactly what you need at this point to earn the revenue from films like Avatar and A Christmas Carol, and all the new movies coming out this year. A lot of these technologies are not expensive. They are not going to put you out of business. If you really spend your time and do your homework, and think about what you need to do to step to be the most competitive player in your industry, it’s not hard to decide to be that player.” Given Cinema West’s successful investment into digital and 3D projection, their choice to go solar indicates that large-scale investments in green technology may be the standard of the future.

Making the choice to go green, whether big or small, can define a company. Benning, a lifelong veteran of the construction business, has worked with all kinds of clients—those bogged down with inertia from the past and those open to new ideas. Is there a difference between a client that wants a green business and one that doesn’t? “I think that good companies reinvent themselves every four or five years. The good companies are looking for ways to do it better.”