Designs on the future: Leading architects discuss the way ahead for cinemas

Last October, Film Journal International previewed some exciting cinema projects that had not yet seen the light of day. Continuing our quest for new ideas and inspiration for how movie theatres might look in the future, this article now seeks the insights of some of the most interesting and accomplished designer-architects in the theatrical space today. Topics include budgets and booth-less layouts, futuristic designs and classic approaches, differentiation and variety, VIP and other sensory experiences, and the impact of alternative content.

Welcoming “flights of fancy” into our conversations, we begin with Rave Cinemas’ CEO Rolando Rodriguez, who is already “dreaming and thinking about what the potentials are for our buildings. Aside from the fact that first and foremost we need to show a great movie and excite our consumers about the moviegoing experience,” he reflects, “there is so much we can do beyond that. I think the potential is there for us to continue to grow.”

For Rodriguez, booth-less designs that place projectors at the rear of any auditorium are one of those no-longer-futuristic options that will change the theatre forever. “Coupled with all the technology at our disposal, what should those auditoriums look like in the future to possibly cater to alternative content?” he wonders. “What should they look like, let’s say, when catering to a sporting event? To an opera-type event?”

The team at Kansas City, Missouri-based TK Architects has already spent some time on the subject and provided our readers with exclusive proof-of-concept renderings as well. “We have been contemplating alternative content and considering the idea of a dedicated room,” acknowledges the firm’s principal Jack Muffoletto, “similar to the idea that there is a dedicated auditorium for large-format, 3D, food and beverage service, VIP, over-21.” Not only do these types of amenities “create more variety and excitement for more reasons to visit,” he finds, but along with alternative content, they also help increase attendance. “Successful movie theatre operations are the ones with the highest occupancy rates and amount of money spent by patrons while in the building,” Muffoletto asserts.

So what would that new type of dedicated space look like? “The room is flexible and reconfigurable with removable and retractable platforms,” he elaborates. “It would offer traditional seating for mainstream movie viewing. Then for alternative content, maybe there is a combination of traditional seating, and either intimate groupings for events like opera, or seating arrangements that promote social interaction like sports and concerts.” To promote the experience itself, TK Architects proposes “the addition of specialty lighting, architectural features and enhanced A/V, or even 3D…to make you feel like you are there at the event. Maybe you can sell season tickets!” Muffoletto suggests.

That would certainly represent a decided “effort to create more revenue opportunities.” For Paul Georges of Philadelphia, PA-based JKR Partners, revenue and opportunity are at the heart of theatres’ continuing evolution. “Theatre operators will continue to explore and test the use and content of their traditional movie theatre venues. Whether the content is the simulcasting of a music concert or sporting event, the live performance of a comic, dancer or musician, a religious service or corporate training session, or simply the traditional ‘catching a movie experience,’ presentations are changing.” To accommodate that, “theatres must be designed to facilitate the variety of events and diversity of customers attending,” he suggests. “This design consideration must extend beyond just the auditoriums. The entire theatre venue must be developed to address the needs of a changing customer.” As evidenced by JKR Partners’ renderings on these pages, this includes the lobby and available amenities, “as well as the atmosphere and environment of the space. As designers, these are the challenges we are faced with in response to the changing content of presentation.”

Dan Ogden, principal at his namesake firm (, whose recent work at Muvico Hialeah is featured in this issue, agrees that moviegoing is and will continue to be about the presentation. “I don’t think everybody wants a 4D film that’s more like a theme-park set-up,” he cautions, “with seats that poke you in the back, blow your hair and where you get sprayed on. But to give people that option as part of a variety of different ways to experience a movie is the way to go. Do they want to see it in 3D, in a large-format setting, with moving seats, with food service? Yes, patrons have their choice of movies, but now and going forward they can also decide what kind of venue they want to see it in.”

All this will help make a marked difference from watching a movie with the comfort and convenience of the home. An expert on the subject of home viewing is Theo Kalomirakis (, the renowned home-theatre architect who recently renovated the Academy Theater at the Lighthouse at his home base in Manhattan. “Normally, there shouldn’t be a difference between the private and the public space,” he notes. “There was a time when public theatres were lavish with so much attention and hefty budgets that they were completely different from what we are used to today. Theatre owners went into the multiplex era with very strict budgets in mind. What used to be an ornate and very inspirational environment became a utilitarian box with fabric spread onto the sheetrock walls.” And without any fabric covering the screen. Every time Kalomirakis goes to Clearview’s Ziegfeld in Manhattan, where they still close the curtain after the pre-show and before the movie, he wants to applaud. “The Ziegfeld prepares you more for the presentation. This is an effort that needs to be acknowledged. Imagine walking into Radio City Music Hall and there is a wall of advertising instead of that cascading curtain, which is probably one of the most magnificent curtains ever made. No, the magic would collapse.”

Manhattan-based entertainment design star David Rockwell, who was actually involved with renovations at Radio City and has worked for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well (, is another expert on the public and private sector. Rockwell has done large-scale theatrical spaces for Cirque de Soleil and Star Theatres, and gone from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood to New York City, designing Loews (now Regal) E-Walk on 42nd Street along with AMC Loews Lincoln Square and the Bunin Film Center for The Film Society at Lincoln Center, two powerhouses on the Upper West Side.

Cultural centers and commercial movie theatres are very different, he opines, yet there is an underlying approach that is the same. “The real key is to stay driven towards new projects and new challenges.” Rockwell might as well be setting the tone for how to approach the future of our industry. To him, it is about “finding opportunities where you have to go outside of your comfort zone.” Likening the process to his design of stage sets, “each case is a lot like approaching a play, where the goal is to work with the director and find the real narrative drive.” With The Film Society, for instance, the real story was about “taking this vibrant New York institution and creating a permanent home” that would become “a curatable tool” for a multitude of events and programming there. By comparison, at AMC Star Southfield in Michigan, “one of the unique challenges” for Rockwell back in 1997 “was creating a building that becomes part of the show and attracts you to go to the movies. It is suburban, freestanding and it has many, many screens, so the problems are very different. One similar challenge, however, is creating a sense of occasion, of something that is special.”

To do so, Rockwell has repeatedly drawn upon motifs from classic theatre design. Likewise, Kalomirakis is looking at the past while thinking ahead. “When I started my career about 20 years ago, my main inspirations were the movie palaces of the past,” he says. “I tried to recreate them in a smaller scale in people’s homes. I was able to do that because the private sector didn’t have such a thing as budget restrictions. For big commercial theatres, on the other hand, you had to work with about $80 a square foot.” Kalomirakis admits to “mostly exaggerating,” but “for that you get some dry wall and stretch fabric and you call it a day.”

Kalomirakis has an anecdote from a meeting that took place about 15 years ago. As the unidentified exhibitor “wanted to differentiate their theatres from other chains, they intended to make an effort with their designs. I interviewed them as much as they interviewed me,” he chuckles at the memory. “‘What are the most important aspects to you?’ I asked. Number one, they said, was stadium-raked auditorium seating; number two was the biggest screen possible; and number three, sound to match. I wanted to hear from them about the theatre. They looked at me confused, asking, ‘What theatre? Oh, you mean the box.’ That to me epitomized the mentality of the typical exhibitor at that time: The theatre was just a box. So I never did anything with them.”

Kalomirakis would be happy to tackle a big cinema project once again. “I would love nothing more than working on a large scale. And my message is: You do not need to spend a fortune to make a theatre look exciting and theatrical. You just have to use design ingenuity and your imagination rather than making it look lavish. It is very easy to spend money, but it is much more difficult to design around a tight budget,” he observes. “While I don’t want exhibitors to tell me to do it with dry wall and paint only, I completely understand why they don’t want to spend money. But if you do it just a little bit better than the multiplex next door, people will come to you instead. If they have a choice between a great environment and a regular environment, they’ll come to the more exciting one.”

Rockwell concurs, “Anything that acknowledges that people have great film, video, audio and broadcast options in their homes, and emphasizes other reasons to leave their houses is smart [for movie theatre design.] I think people are not going out just to have a one-on-one experience with the film. Whatever can be done to make that more exciting, more engaging, more surprising, I think is smart.”

We hope our readers will find the decidedly futuristic look of James Law’s Cybertecture as exciting and surprising as his “Class of 2010” work in Hefei, China. Law’s latest signature design is “filled with exciting interior decorations and installed with innovative gadgets,” the company chairman and chief “cybertect” advises us from his Hong Kong headquarters ( “To ignite passion and excitement, a consistent theme of stunning Liquid Metal sculptures is presented within the grand lobby, auditorium and ticketing office. To capture audience imagination and ignite visual impact, our revolutionary theatres are fabricated with a shape of fluidity and sense of freedom.” To Law, “this exciting interior layout” is critical for return engagements as it “enhances audience enjoyment with an energetic experience [for] a lasting impression after departure.”

Noting that “cinemas are always looking for high visual impact for their audience,” Cybertecture also believes “that the integration of digital gadgets would dramatically touch audience feelings and emotions. Contrary to the traditional setting of an access hallway,” the company’s Best Lifestyle Award-winning “Cybertecture Mirror“ is seamlessly blended along the walls between the auditoriums.” The mirror features “an interactive, digital interface that is able to portray live data (time, weather, location, social media) and customizable programs to moviegoers.”

With design creations like this, Law feels the future is already here. “Our innovations for movie theatres are in tune with the emerging trends of enhanced personal expression, digital interconnectivity and social involvement.”

Mirror, mirror on the wall, where does this take our theatres, one and all?

Thoughts on Seating: VIP Treatment
“A theatre that is better designed and that brings us back to the principal of the moviegoing experience could definitely warrant a higher ticket price, just like they do now with VIP screening rooms,” opines Theo Kalomirakis. “Unfortunately, not in New York, but around the country, they are popping up with plush, reclining seats where they bring you food. All this is great, but it is still just comfort while you sit. To me, movie theatre magic is comfort for your eyes, what you see around you.” Kalomirakis has seen a lot of VIP set-ups. “Of course, it’s cushiony, but you don’t go home singing about the theatre. In my world, that is what I want to have happen.”

“Much is changing for this industry—and in our world. And we have important challenges to address so that we may continue providing our audiences a high-quality experience. In the end, despite our challenges, this is an exciting time to be in a business that has seen many exciting times since its inception. I see new innovations on the horizon and fresh creative visions about to be realized on cinema screens around the world.”
—Senator Chris Dodd, Chairman and CEO, Motion Picture Association, at CineEurope 2011

“Any forward-thinking exhibitor would realize that with a little bit more investment in the auditorium, you will be able to promote it better to distinguish yourself from the rest of the crowd that is just about cutting budgets. I think they are going to see a return on that money.”
—Theo Kalomirakis