From Mumbai to Bucharest: FJI's annual survey of theatre construction goes global

After checking out the “family” side of the exhibition business last month and before concluding our annual “Class” review with some final “Food for Thought” in April, Film Journal International now travels abroad. As with all entries in our attendance log, this selection is by no means complete, but merely a sampling. We also recommend the unique perspective of the sidebar article below by Glasgow, Scotland-based Jim Unick, who works on a global basis in both emerging and established markets.

For this Exhibition Guide issue, we chose three special projects in the developing markets of India, China and Central and Eastern Europe. Looking at Cinema City across the latter region and Reliance BIG Cinemas in India, the power of industry leaders in shaping development becomes evident. One exhibitor singlehandedly built no less than seven Cinema Cities in three countries and the other put a unique BIG Cinemas stamp on seven screens from Mumbai to Manhattan. The Mbox cinema in Hefei, China stands for innovation and excitement that one architect and his client can create with a single project ( “Through a series of Cybertecture interactive, multimedia designs,” the designers believe “this theatre will bring a special, unique and new experience to audiences.”

Opening on Oct. 11 in the Grand Theater development area of the Anhui province capital’s central district, Mbox may only have two digital and 3D auditoria of 82 and 216 seats, what a space these entrepreneurs have created! “The cinema is where the audience experiences different journeys,” says James Law, chairman and chief “cybertect” of the Hong Kong, China-based firm that bears his name ( “The circulation of this energy,” along with the “rapid change of films” is his chosen design concept. “Our aim is to create a landmark full of dynamics. Our interior design is inspired by action and speed to [highlight] the tension in movies, creating an extraordinary experience for audiences.”

Extending through the glass façade next to the cinema entrance, “a multi-faceted LED light sculpture gives the audience a brand new impression of a contemporary cinema layout design,” Law declares. (The light sculpture also plays trailers.) At the same time, the Mbox logo “is projected onto the building using laser technologies just like projecting a film.” The lobby also features “vibrant images from movies to give customers an extraordinary experience. There are four irregularly shaped ticket counters which light up from below.” Together with touch-screen interfaces, this is not only “designed to break with a traditional ticket counter,” he explains, but also aims to bring staff and customers closer together.

“The interior design also gives the effect of jumping into virtual spaces,” Law adds. LED digital posters, electronic message boards, changing color accents and reflective wall surfaces all create “interesting patterns that entertain the customers while they wait.” Meanwhile, “long benches are extended from the walls for a three-dimensional effect, making the interior space more connected and innovative.”

Equally exciting are the two cinemas themselves. “The interior design is based on the concept of sound waves moving out from the screen into the audience,” Law explains. Gradually changing light fixtures are set into the walls as the “speakers are hidden to reduce visual obstructions.” The seats as well were arranged so that “the audience can watch the film at the best angle.”

With all new interior style and other upgrades, BIG Cinemas made sure that two classic theatres in Manhattan and Mumbai are now showing off their best angles once again. India’s largest cinema chain firmly established its U.S. flagship location by renaming the ImaginAsian (previously known as 59th Street East, D.W. Griffith and Cinemalibu; see as BIG Cinemas Manhattan, continuing operations under the Phoenix BIG Management group. The March 15 reopening created “the ultimate destination to indulge in a luxurious cinematic experience” for New York’s Asian Indian population. “After undergoing major renovations over the past months,” the media release continued, “including aesthetic, audio and visual enhancements, the theatre now features brand-new and very comfortable seating, remodeled restrooms, an expanded lobby with an updated concession stand, LCD screens and box office, as well as BARCO 2K digital projection.”

Anil Arjun, chief executive officer of Reliance MediaWorks (RMW), the division that heads up BIG Cinemas development worldwide for the Reliance ADA Group, commented, “New York, with its fast-growing and prosperous population of Indians, is the potential epicenter of growth for us and we see considerable opportunity here in the exhibition infrastructure space.”

Similarly in Mumbai, a “much-beloved cinema hall” from 1968 reopened its doors in August “with state-of-the-art refurbishments, making it a moviegoing destination to watch out for.” The four-screen, 1,276-seat Sangam BIG Cinemas is named after Raj Kapoor’s iconic film, RMW’s senior corporate communications manager Khushboo Benani tells FJI. “Sangam BIG Cinemas has been done in our signature brand colors with unique movie-based pop-art graphics. The theatre now houses a bright and spacious pre-ticket lobby at the ground-floor box office, followed by a swanky inside lobby that boasts of dynamic contemporary design with a futuristic feel.”

While Sangam features both a gaming lounge with Nintendo Wii consoles and an art gallery, the Rama BIG in Latur, state of Maharastra, introduced an activity zone for children aged two to eight. Appropriately named “Mischief,” Benani explains “this unique concept was designed from a kid’s point of view. Hence, all the design criteria, spatial planning, proportions, look and feel are drawn from what makes them most comfortable.” To enhance “a more playful and enriching interaction,” she says, five distinct lounges were created under the headings of “Couch Potato,” “Bounce,” “Bookworm,” “Battleship” and “Joystick.” There are also dedicated washroom and food areas for the kids.

With 786 “stadium-style, plush push-back seats,” large screens and a DTS sound system, the twin theatre also offers a large variety of food options for adult patrons under the in-house brand of “Movie Munchies.” Again, Rama BIG Cinemas has the signature colors and movie-based pop-art graphics. “The redevelopment of Rama BIG Cinemas has been remarkable,” noted BIG Cinemas’ chief operating officer, Ashish Saksena, at the Oct. 8 opening. “We aim to reinvent the multiplex experience for the city and provide a world-class moviegoing experience to audiences.”

Cinema City International is also reinventing the moviegoing experience. During 2010, the company opened seven multiplexes with a total of 63 screens, and it just signed a share-and-asset purchase agreement for 121 screens at 15 Palace Cinemas in three countries (see “European Update” in this issue).

“It was another year of growth for the company,” director of investor relations Joanna Kotlowska somewhat understates. On June 18, the circuit premiered 15 screens (five digital) and 2,934 seats at Bucharest’s Sun Plaza. On Sept. 17, the eighth Cinema City multiplex for Romania followed with ten screens (five digital) and 1,622 seats in the town of Arad. While the company had been operating in six cities since entering the country in December 2007, this was the first in Arad.

“I believe that, like in all our Romanian locations, we are going to enjoy a very warm welcome,” chief executive officer Moshe (Mooky) Greidinger noted for the opening. “We observe growing cinema-going statistics in Romania in the last quarters and have no doubt that the modern multiplex infrastructure of Cinema City will be supporting these statistics in the future.”

After all, Greidinger believes, “the cinema business is based on habit. The challenge in creating the experience is to have our guests, on their way out of the cinema, say to themselves, ‘We should do this more and more often.’” To him, that experience begins “from the minute they enter. One of our favorite sayings in the company is ‘Cinema City is your best way to see a movie.’ We strongly believe that when the people visit any of our sites, it should feel to them just like the best. At any Cinema City, you will recognize our general look. At the same time, I like that every one of our newly built theatres has some character of its own. Everything, from our big and comfortable lobbies to the concession stands and into the hall that shows a good movie, is accompanied by a smiling and warm attitude from our team. All that creates a great experience.”

On Nov. 4, Greidinger delivered again when the Cinema City team in Baia Mare, Romania, opened the doors to six screens (three digital) and 1,775 seats at Gold Plaza, the only multiplex in a town of 140,000 inhabitants. Calling Romania “the country where Cinema City is implementing its most aggressive organic development plan,” Greidinger says the high attendance there demonstrates “the demand for the top-end viewing experience offered across our chain in all countries of operation.” With per-capita attendance of 0.29 during the first half of 2010, Romania accounted for 7.9% of CCI’s total revenues and 10% of overall ticket sales, he noted.

On Nov. 10, seven screens (four digital) and 1,340 seats at the Galleria in Sara Zagora marked the circuit’s third outing in Bulgaria, followed by ten screens (four digital) and 1,866 seats at Mall Rousse on Dec. 20. Already during the first nine months of 2010, with more than one million tickets sold, cinema-related revenue in Bulgaria had risen to 5.9 million euros (US$7.8 mil.), an increase of 56% from the first nine months of 2009.

Closing our 2010 “Class” review of Cinema City, Nov. 17 marked the debut of their 30th multiplex in Poland. Cinema City Agora in Bytom offers eight screens (four digital) and 1,522 seats to 180,000 people. “This opening represents extremely well our strategy where the growth of infrastructure is always followed by growth in admissions,” Greidinger said. “Entering a mid-size city that did not have a cinema is clearly growing the Polish market.” The circuit’s largest market of 331 screens and five Orange IMAX theatres ( also includes CC Galeria Victoria (three of seven screens digital, and 1,622 seats), which opened on Oct. 19 in Walbrzych. During the first half of 2010, revenues from Poland totaling 60.4 million euros (US$79.5 mil.) accounted for almost 52% of CCI’s revenues, as 7.6 million tickets sold represented half of attendance circuit-wide.

As with all good students, Cinema City will not be resting on its laurels. “Following these openings,” Joanna Kotlowska summarizes for us, “our screen count reached 725 in 75 cinemas, of which close to 260 are digital. The company also has binding commitments for an additional 34 sites, representing some 350 screens, that include 26 sites and approximately 250 screens in Romania alone.” ( ) You will surely be reading about them in our “Class of 2011.”

As with previous and subsequent entries to this series, we can only feature a selection and personal choice of projects that have come to the author’s attention. Obviously, the best way to be considered for inclusion is to send in information about what your company is doing.

A Unick Perspective

By Jim Unick, Glasgow, Scotland

2010 was quite simply a great year for cinema design, as finally the major benefits associated with the introduction of full digital projection to multiplex cinemas were being seen. In particular, the “no box” advantages that allow new auditoria to be designed in almost any configuration without the constraints of a 35mm projector and its associated equipment have allowed us to greatly increase the efficiency (i.e., the square-foot area divided by the seat count) of new-build or converted theatres.

This efficiency is not just achieved by the omission of the mezzanine floor containing the projection “box,” but we as architects are now free to locate individual auditoria into spaces that were previously impossible to fit out. For example, we can now use the undercroft of larger screens as a smaller auditorium, when previously this space was only used for toilets, offices and storage. The impact this has on real-estate deals is already being felt by those involved in the negotiation of space requirements for future cinemas throughout the world that are aware of the need for less space to achieve more screens and more seats than could ever have been reasonably foreseen.

We have successfully completed many of these new digital screens this year for Empire Cinemas, based in London, with proposals to create up to 100 more throughout the circuit. The four main problems we have encountered with the digital projector being located without a traditional box are heat, vibration, noise and access. Careful attention to detail and a willingness on the part of our clients to experiment with different solutions resulted in a series of methods being found to successfully resolve each of these problems. To date, the theatre operators jealously guard the solution developed and adopted by them, but with time there will undoubtedly be an industry standard that will become the norm.

Other major U.K. operators such as Vue are replacing existing 35mm projectors with digital on a “plug-and-play” basis, where the new projector is still located within an existing box. Vue, for whom we designed two new multiplexes in 2010 in Westfield, London [FJI September and October 2010] and in Bury near Manchester, have begun a rollout program with Sony to install 4K digital-cinema projection systems across their 68 sites and 657 screens. In addition, more screens are being added to many of these sites to increase the choice of films. Westfield, which is Europe’s largest purpose-built, all-digital 14-screen cinema with over 2,700 seats, has since its opening in February repeatedly been the U.K.’s most popular cinema, and we have begun work on-site on another Vue 14-screen, 2,800-seat, all-digital multiplex at Stratford in the new Olympic Village.

One further spin-off benefit of digital is the ability to fit auditoria into retail environments to enhance or even create new sales opportunities within existing non-cinema buildings. During the year, we have worked with HMV and Waterstones in the U.K. and Walmart in the U.S. to create a new form of d-cinema that would live side-by-side with the retailer and would (if built) offer their existing customer base a unique entertainment experience.

In India, we opened one new cinema in Jodhpur for Satyam and went on-site with two others at Mysore and Aurangabad. For Collage, we completed Jallandhar and began work on-site for a fully digital project in Bhopal. The appetite for new multiplexes continues unabated, although there are few new projects with more than six screens. The operators have embraced digital enthusiastically and we have prepared proposals for smaller “Director’s Box” screens that are capable of being retrofitted into existing mainstream cinemas or adjacent integral retail units that are a feature common to all Indian cinemas.

We at Unick Architects are really looking forward to 2011 and all that digital, 2D and 3D cinema has to offer.

Founded in 1976, Unick Architects Ltd. has been at the forefront of modern cinema and retail design. Since the first multiplex cinemas opened in the U.K. in 1985, Unick has been responsible for the design and construction of over 100 of the 280 new cinema sites there, while refurbishing or remodeling around another 100. Clients include ABC, Odeon, UCI, MGM, Virgin, Warner Bros., Vue, Cineworld, Empire, Apollo and Curzon. Internationally, over the past 16 years, multiplex cinemas were designed and/or built in more than 20 countries.