Big box breakthrough: Santa Rosa Blue Oaks turns digital projection into design asset

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The movies will be all digital this fall when Santa Rosa Entertainment Group (www.northamericancinemas.com) opens its Blue Oaks 16 all-stadium complex in Rocklin, Calif., some 23 miles north of Sacramento.

“Since they make no noise at all, the digital projectors will be located inside the auditorium,” reports Dan Tocchini, president and chief executive officer of the 14-theatre, 126-screen circuit. “The Barco units are on lifts mounted on the back of the theatre. Whenever you need to perform any work on the projector, you lower it, make the changes, then press a button and it goes right back up.”

Even better, “everything will be controlled electronically, including the temperature in the auditorium, the focus, the sound…” Tocchini envisions “the manager going into the auditorium and checking on just about everything in there, using an iPhone-like type of remote.”

That kind of compact control would have seemed like science fiction in 1926, when Dan’s father, Dan Tocchini, Sr., opened the Strand Theatre in Santa Rosa and launched the family-owned and operated chain.

Dan Tocchini, Jr. sees great potential in Santa Rosa Entertainment’s 15th site beyond its high-tech operation. “It’s an ideal location with an ideal set-up,” he says about Rocklin and the defunct Mervyn’s department store they are taking over as new anchor tenants for the surrounding shopping center. “This is a great project in a great area. If you go out there and look in any direction, all you’ll see is a sea of rooftops. Especially when the recession ends or tapers off further, construction in the area will start again. It’s a real growth area and we’re really excited about being there.”

The economy played a key role in securing the site. Tocchini originally eyed another new development in the area, but that project never materialized. “Financially, it’s always a problem when we’re in a recession,” Tocchini admits, noting that “a substantial portion of the money is put up by our company.” Moving into an abandoned big-box space afforded “quite a bit of savings,” though “it’s still a substantial cost,” he cautions. “First of all, you are eliminating the projection mezzanine, which runs around a million dollars for that second floor.” Furthermore, “by utilizing practically every foot in the building, you’re not wasting any square footage that you’re paying for on the lease.”

In addition to offices, storage and restrooms, the footprint afforded a game arcade and sizeable snack bar as part of “a massive lobby” that has five rotundas from which the cinema auditoriums branch off. Ensuring such efficient use fell into the “very, very good” hands of Hoefer Wysocki Architects of Kansas City, Kansas (www.hwa.net) and the duo behind Digital Cinema Development (DCD). “The architects did the design in conjunction with DCD, so that the layout would work with the equipment,” DCD’s co-owner Scott Stalcup says. “The resulting efficiency ratio is comparable to what you would find elsewhere. On a retrofit, it’s kind of miraculous to end up with a ratio of just under 22.”

Stalcup and his DCD partner, Larry Jacobson, are well-known in the industry, as respected architect/designer and movie theatre builder/innovator, respectively. “We’re sure the number of theatres that we built together [since joining forces for the first time on the AMC Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas] is in the thousands,” Jacobson declares. “We’re not sure just how many thousands.”

No matter the number of entertainment venues they created, Blue Oaks provided the pair with yet another opportunity to innovate. Both for Santa Rosa Entertainment and going forward, “we want to take advantage of digital technology as it does several things,” Stalcup says, explaining the company’s goal. “First and foremost, it provides a better experience. Secondly, we’re able to integrate construction and technology in order to reduce overall construction and operating costs. It’s about creating a better product for your dollar.”

The first facilitator of change is the previously mentioned location of Barco’s state-of-the-art projectors at the back wall. “Larry has been working on this idea for ten years,” Stalcup confirms. “When we took the mezzanine out of this, technology provided us with the ability to then design within existing spaces. Previous to this, you couldn’t do so because there was not enough height for the projection mezzanine.”

Adds Jacobson, “There was a design for Blue Oaks that actually had the roof taken off and excavation done in the auditoriums, which made the construction cost much, much higher. We just went into the existing space, didn’t have to do any of that extra work, and instead managed to dovetail the auditoriums in there.”

While there is certainly what Jacobson fondly calls “some secret sauce to this,” he invites exhibitors to see how it could be applied to their projects, as Stalcup and Tocchini disclose some of the Blue Oaks developments to the exclusive benefit of our readers. “The easiest way to describe it is that we took the spine out of the theatre,” the architect says. “With a projection mezzanine, everything has to work off that central line, but now we can project from any direction.” Stalcup further notes “the flexibility to work around existing columns and beams” this created, even if some areas had to be beamed still. He also points out the simplicity of adding “studs and drywall auditorium demising walls” along with the stadium design of “poured concrete on foam risers.”

For his part, Tocchini also notes “the versatility of being able to move a theatre in any direction.” Some other theatres in the Santa Rosa Group have been built without a projection booth as well, but “they are using totally different set-ups,” he notes. “There, we have access through the lobby or hallways from ladders going up to where the projectors are located on top. But here, you’re projecting from the back of the auditorium and can have those auditoriums face any which way you want.”

With no binding booth in sight, the location of the server room is flexible too, Jacobson assures. “Although it doesn’t necessarily have to be, our control room at Blue Oaks turned out to be centrally located. A long-ago presentation that showed a control room up above the lobby was meant to demonstrate the idea that it could be just about anywhere. With the servers all placed in there, the sound systems, including amplifiers, are located behind the screens.”

While the CAT cable wiring that ties it all together “is pretty simple as well,” the projector lift is certainly not. “Calling it ‘the lift’ is a simple description of a somewhat complex element,” Jacobson clarifies. “It’s not just putting a projector on a shelf that goes up and down. The intent was to provide an acoustical and vented full enclosure for the projector inside and a port glass in front. It actually mounts to the rear wall and rides up and down so that we don’t lose any seats because of it.”

An innovative new Digital Cinema Remote Control (DCRC) that was developed by USL Inc. (http://dcrc.uslinc.com) comes along for the ride. As an encompassing management tool, this handheld touch-screen device “certainly complements the lift operation,” Jacobson observes, offering a hypothetical example of its usefulness. “A customer complains, let’s say because the sound level is too high or too low. Normally, with a mezzanine structure, you would have to run upstairs to make the adjustment. And while in the booth, turning the fader up or down, you are really guessing. If you are diligent, you’d then go down back into the auditorium to verify that the level is okay. With the handheld device, you adjust it right inside the auditorium where you should be. You can also adjust the house lights and the projectors, of course.”

While the USL DCRC works with other projector makes and models, “the design on the lift today only accommodates the Barcos,” Jacobson explains. “It has been designed with Barco in mind and rigorously tested at their facility. We operated at full power and for hours on end, monitoring all temperature set points inside the projector. It’s been a really diligent process.”

The actual product will make its official debut in Orlando, Florida, next month. “Everyone will be able to see it at ShowEast,” Jacobson assured in a follow-up email. “It is an extremely well-designed system… Barco has tested it with their projector and USL has integrated the remote with Barco. Together they form a system that is unparalleled in simplicity.”

Given all the innovation in design, technology and operational simplicity, what are everybody’s favorite aspects of Blue Oaks?

For operator Dan Tocchini, they are location and “the advantage of being able to deliver complete digital cinema in a minimum amount of space.” And with a minimum amount of time too, perhaps? Scott Stalcup estimates a savings of about 40% on the construction activity. “Going into an existing building, we do not have to contend with exterior wall and roof construction, weather delays, steel delays and the like.” He also feels “that the function is just fantastic” at Blue Oaks. “What has been asked for some time now is, what do we do with those big boxes when they go dark? Here we’ve come up with a very, very viable reuse of a building that will revitalize the site, generate great foot traffic and equal revenues. And we’re not bulldozing these things… It’s good for everybody in that project.”

Ever the innovator, Larry Jacobson is already looking beyond the Blue Oaks project. Thanks to technology, “a lot of other things are going to sprout up.”