Efficient and entertaining: New cinema projects employ cost-conscious strategies

Even though it took us until our third lesson, it is really impossible to write about the Cinema Class of 2011 without mentioning the tough economic times under which its members completed their term projects. When we originally received an e-mail that one of the leading providers of stadium seating solutions was not going to exhibit at ShowEast 2011, we took notice…but were pleased to read that it was not because of lack of business. Thankfully for all of us in the industry, quite the opposite was the case. “We are having a very active year with more than 35 projects in 20 states and Canada,” wrote Frank Moson, chief executive officer of Stadium Seating Enterprises (SSE, www.stadiumseating.com). “But with success comes sacrifice. In order to focus on our current clients and projects, we will be unable to take a break and join you in Hollywood, Florida.”

Moson was able to break away, however, when Film Journal International called to talk about his PREfoam™ riser retrofits, stadium screen additions and his work on new cinema construction in general. “I can make my system any size, any height, any width, any depth, regardless,” he declares. “The architects and builders are starting to realize and appreciate that there is an easier and faster, more efficient way to build stadium risers than the old method of making them out of steel.”

In a retrofit of a 1-in-12 sloped floor, for example, “we’ll just cut and taper the bottom layer of foam so that it conforms to the incline. We first match and then attach it to the floor. Since the top of the pieces are flat, obviously, we can start adding our building blocks to reach the appropriate riser height, less four inches [10 cm] for pouring the concrete on top of the foam.”

Not surprisingly, such flexible and cost-effective design afforded a variety of different project types, from ground-up entertainment centers like last month’s Emagine Royal Oaks to retail conversions like Flix Brewhouse and Gateway Theaters 14, to the single-screen rehab of the December 1949 West Theatre in Rock Springs, Wyoming, into a multi-functional cultural center called the Broadway Theater, opening in early 2012.

Moson also confirms that conversions to in-theatre dining and VIP concepts were very much part of the mix. “We even had some of those shoestring deals, where the operator was the contractor as well. In a small theatre in a small town, could the owner and a couple of guys have installed steel structures with metal pans and all that by themselves? No way. We prepared our foam solution based on the drawing that the exhibitor provided to me, and he installed and poured the risers himself.”

The conversion of vacated retail into the Flix Brewhouse in Round Rock, Texas, required additional talents, including those of JKR Partners Architects/Designers (www.jkrpartners.com). The operation itself is a partnership as well, between Flix Brewhouse and Galaxy Theatres. As an aside regarding how the economy has influenced cinema openings, we can report that this all-digital six-plex was still considered one of several “Cool Designs” awaiting its realization in our October 2010 report on the subject. The grand opening of the 778-seat building-cum-microbrewery, with in-auditorium dining offered for 107 to 176 people and featuring “our revolutionary Easy Glider moveable table top,” coincided with Harry Potter’s final visit to Hogwarts Dining Hall on July 14.

As part of the total 31,630-sq- ft. (2,940 sq. m) area, 3,150 square feet are dedicated to kitchen/prep and 1,225 square feet to the brewery operations (293 and 114 sq. m, respectively).

“We have additional similar projects in various stages of design and construction, but this is JKR Partners’ first completed in-theatre dining project,” says Paul Georges, one of the firm’s principals. “Our favorite aspect…is the overall concept, enjoying a freshly brewed beer along with the entertainment of a first-run movie.” Guests can select from “a tremendous variety of 46 draft beers, including six brewed onsite.” Consequently, “the exterior and the lobby space highlight the brewery portion of the project with large expanses of glass displaying the kettles and tuns used to create the beers,” he explains. “In addition to the usual theatre lobby elements, Flix Brewhouse features a lounge and bar, called Flix Mix, and a pick-up dining option, Flix Quix. The bar and lounge area is available for non-moviegoing patrons to enjoy.”

Never mind the working microbrewery, with another 4,350 square feet dedicated to lobby/bar/restrooms and the remaining 18,500 going to the auditoriums (404 and 1,720 sq. m), Flix Brewhouse makes efficient use of a former book, music and video store. According to Georges, “The main challenge was to develop a layout that would accommodate the theatre program and operational needs with minimal alterations to the existing structure of the vacant retail space.”

Vacated in 2006, a 107,000-square-foot former Kmart building (9,940 sq. m) in Wenatchee, Washington, received an $8 million transformation. Sun Basin Cinemas set midnight sail to the initial 12 SSE-raised auditoriums of their Gateway Cinema 14 with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides on May 19. The others have since followed suit along with the enthusiastic crowds attending auditoriums offering 80 to 295 seats, for a total of 1,500. Two auditoriums provide “the over-21 crowd with plusher seats, more legroom and wait service for food and drink during the movies.”

Exemplary reporting from Mike Irwin in The Wenatchee World supplies the basic facts: Some 62,000 square feet (5,760 sq m.) of a portion of an old Kmart building was renovated into lobby, concession and theatre spaces, while raising the roof 13 feet to accommodate the largest, 52-foot-wide screens. Twenty-five employees are needed to keep the theatre running smoothly seven days a week.

Irwin’s detailed account also shares the development history relevant to this month’s economics lesson: The opening “caps Sun Basin’s expansion strategy for showing movies in the Wenatchee Valley,” Irwin wrote about “a three-year plan to finance Gateway Cinema by closing and selling the five-screen Columbia Cinemas, East Wenatchee’s only movie theatres, and the Vue Dale Drive-In, one of the last drive-in theatres in eastern Washington. In July, Sun Basin sold the 2.95-acre parcel [1.2 ha] that includes the Columbia Cinemas to a Spokane developer that, soon after, announced Walgreens would be its first tenant. “The two-screen, 11-acre Vue Dale closed Oct. 3 after 57 years of showing movies outdoors. The property remains on the market. And downtown’s Liberty Cinemas will remain open and unchanged by its new sister facility in north Wenatchee.” The Wenatchee World also reported that the “long-term movie plan” of Sun Basin’s general manager, Bryan Cook, is “to show a wide variety of movies on as many screens as possible, with no duplication of movie features between the Liberty and Gateway cinemas.”

Taking liberty to move on to SSE’s stadium outfit in Freeport, Maine,(www.nordicatheatre.com), retail giant L.L. Bean comes to mind almost immediately. And, indeed, with six NEC DLP Cinema screens (two RealD-enabled) and some 730 seats, the new Nordica Theatre—named after the historic one that Film Daily Yearbook listed as operating from 1941 to 1950—opened on Nov. 18, right under the L.L. Bean Outlet store. In a more common cinema and retail relationship—rather than one replacing the other—the theatre is operated by Belmont Capital (www.yourneighborhoodtheatre.com) for Berenson Associates, developers of the Freeport Village Station lifestyle shopping center. “Less than 10,000 people live in Freeport,” Sean Selby, associate principal of Arrowstreet, wrote in the architectural and planning firm’s blog. “There has long been strong interest in bringing a movie theatre to the center of town. The only challenge has been…everything. Who would build it? Where? Who would operate it? Most importantly, who would come?”

He goes on to answer his own question. “For starters, some in town fondly remember the original Nordica Theatre in Freeport from the 1940s and ’50s and can’t wait to renew their once-regular visits. Others, who are not quite old enough to remember the original theatre, would relish not having to drive 30 minutes to the next-nearest theatre elsewhere in Maine. Finally, there are more than three million annual tourists visiting Freeport, many of whom wonder what to do after the stores close. Now, they have another choice.”

“We’re very excited that residents and visitors to Freeport will finally have a state-of-the-art movie theatre right here in our hometown,” Carolyn Beem, spokesperson for landowner L.L. Bean had noted earlier. “We like the idea of keeping the tradition of the Nordica Movie Theatre in Freeport, and we think our customers are going to love the options for dinner and a movie and shopping at L.L. Bean and the many retail establishments Freeport has to offer. The location is ideal.”

While we all know that cinemas have great impact on the social, cultural and economic lives of the areas that they serve, it is nonetheless gratifying to receive official acknowledgment from those very same communities. When National Amusements (www.showcasecinemas.com) launched its Showcase Cinema de Lux Ridge Hill dozen on May 20, the mayor of Yonkers, New York, congratulated them for “their hard work and determination in making this exciting family-friendly entertainment venue a reality.” As the chairman of the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency, which provided “the assistance of key economic incentives,” Mayor Amicone further lauded “National Amusements’ impressive new cinema” for providing “110 part-time jobs and 10 permanent jobs at a time when unemployment—particularly for our young people—is still too high.”

The 65,000-square-foot building (6,040 sq. m) with some 3,000 “custom-designed, deep-cushioned, rocking recliner seats with cupholder armrests” located in auditoriums ranging from 130 to 475 capacity, is National Amusements’ first “completely all digital featuring Sony 4K projection and Dolby Digital 7.1 sound,” explains Steve Horton, VP of operations. (Four screens offer RealD systems.) “This is also our introduction of the Showcase brand into the New York area and it features many of the amenities that are part of our Legacy Place [FJI October 2009] and Patriot Place [FJI October 2008] locations.” He singles out the 50-seat Studio 3 full-service restaurant and bar, Ben & Jerry’s and Nathan’s treats along with “plush seating areas as well as first-class customer service.”

Two weeks later in New Mexico, the city of Rio Rancho showed its appreciation to Premiere Companies by naming the street leading to the all-digital 2,667-seat 14-plex after the exhibitor (www.pccmovies.com). With D-Box motion-activated seats and RealD equipment in half of the auditoriums and Barco and GDC equipment in all, Premiere Rio Rancho opened on June 9 at 1000 Premiere Parkway. By offering a community open house of free Oscar-nominated and winning films, Premiere ended the town’s 12+ years movie-less run times that began with the closing of the 1974 Village Twin in 1998.

“We’re grateful for the support the City has shown for our project,” Premiere’s Joel Davis, VP of cinema operations, noted at the time. “It’s not every town that names a street after you, so it’s a major milestone for Premiere and for Rio Rancho’s continued growth.” For the company archive, he also recorded the words of a passing-by moviegoer. “I think it’s a really nice gesture,” the entry reads. “Everybody I know is really excited about the theatre. I think the sign is a good addition.” The “towering all-stadium multiplex can be seen from miles coming from almost all directions,” the Rio Rancho Observer agreed. “Our View—Welcome, Premiere Cinemas!”

After a local realtor team had sponsored a video of the launch festivities, six months to the opening date, Rio Rancho made its mark statewide as well. On Dec. 9, Premiere received the NAIOP Award of Excellence saluting “outstanding achievements in commercial development for the past year.” On the occasion of “The New Mexico Hangover”-themed annual gala of the Commercial Real Estate Developers Association, president/chief executive officer Gary Moore expressed his appreciation. “The support we’ve received from the community has been nothing short of exceptional. We always felt this was a great location and good use of the site, so to be honored by our peers in this way is remarkable.”

And the cinema itself has remarkable features too, he proudly relays to FJI, including almost 2,700 seats on a 46,400-square-foot footprint (4,310 sq. m), ranging from 98 to 334 in individual capacities. “We accomplished this efficiency quotient by removing the mezzanine altogether and pushing the theatres together for a back-to-back configuration,” Moore elaborates. “We’ve engineered soundproof ventilated enclosures for the projectors and built them right into the architecture… The Digital Command Center is among our significant achievements. It is the brain center for the entire complex and all A/V content originates from this high-tech ‘clean’ room located off the lobby in the main promenade where guests can peer in and watch the technology at work.”

Taking efficiency even further, Rio Rancho was “built with emphasis on energy savings as well, utilizing reflective roofing, double-studded insulated exterior walls, computerized building control management, and LED lighting in lieu of incandescent or fluorescent sources.” Specifically, Moore mentions the poster cases made by Horizon. “Illuminated by 384 white LEDs that produce no heat, they use 91% less electricity than fluorescents.” Pulling only 1.5 amps each, “best of all,” he enthuses “you don’t have to ever change bulbs or ballasts.”

Just as Rio Rancho represents an original design by Premiere (developed by Albuquerque’s Modulus Architects, with general contractor Wilger Enterprises), “we also designed, built and opened a beautiful theatre” in North Houston, Texas. “Premiere designed this facility to attach to the Greenspoint Mall to replace the former JC Penney store,” creating the first movie theatre in over 30 years since the General Cinema 5 closed. “Our cinema’s arched glass entry and 10-foot rotating globe tower set the stage for a evening to remember at the movies,” Moore suggests. “From the waterfall drapes to the flooring, to the custom-made floor-to-ceiling glass edge-lit auditorium markers, Renaissance 15 is both reminiscent of the classic theatres of yesteryear, and the unparalleled quality of presentation afforded only by our digital projection and sound technology.”

Barco/GDC and RealD, coupled with Premiere’s 7.1 Sound and Digital Command Center, are again part of the package. Going online on May 13, Premiere Renaissance 15 became another model of Class of 2011 efficiency with 3,112 seats in auditoriums ranging from 102 to 414 “Dolphin Star High-Back Rocking Love Seats” on 59,400 square feet (5,520 sq. m) thanks to its boothless layout, which even allows for flexibility to come.

“The facility was initially designed as a 20-plex,” Moore says. “However, during construction, IMAX came to the table and we agreed to pursue a large-format auditorium to be added to the location. The facility then became a 15-plex and five screens were not completed to accommodate the future IMAX, which would be added pending the mall developer’s final approval.”

For more big-screen developments, make sure to register for next month’s Class of 2011 session.