Look who’s dining…Tom Stephenson creates multiple choices for cinema and food at North Dallas prototype


In April we reported from CinemaCon how exhibition history was recorded at Prestonwood Creek (Addison) in North Dallas, Texas. As the first film to be natively rendered in Dolby Atmos, Tom Cruise’s sci-fi adventure Oblivion opened there at the all-new LOOK Cinemas in the first auditorium built from the ground up with the revolutionary audio format in mind. Even more fittingly, the 70-by-50-foot screen (21 by 15 m) was appropriately branded by owner-operator Tom Stephenson.

“We call it ‘Evolution,’ and the tagline is ‘It’s Not Just a Theory,’” the co-founder and chief executive of LOOK Cinemas LLC (www.lookcinemas.com) told Film Journal International at the time. “Sight, sound and screen technology have evolved and we believe that our cinema is literally the next stage in great presentation and the next step in a long, great history of theatrical exhibition creating better and better spaces to enjoy movies in.”

In time for this month’s NAC Convention coverage, we now take another look at LOOK. Part of creating “the finest presentation house in the country” are equally fine dining and drinking options provided by Joseph Palladino, a well-known regional restaurateur. While offering three uniquely different ways of enjoying the latest movies, the 11-screen, 1,900-seat complex is also flanked by both a “high-end dining experience” (Nick & Sam’s Grill) and a “casual neighborhood restaurant” (Coal Vines Pizza and Wine Bar, ready at the end of July).

Three of the LOOK screens are called “The Loft” and were created “to be your date-night auditoriums,” Stephenson elaborates. “The extra-plush seats are set up in pairs of two with the armrest coming up. With about six inches of space to the next pair, you have no less than five feet of your personal space. Outside of The Lofts, we have our full bar with lighter foods and a selection of sushi and wraps.” The small plates and accompanying beverages can be taken inside to enjoy what is being marketed as a “sophisticated theatre experience with spacious, luxurious seating.”

While that is certainly “a great way to see a movie,” Stephenson and Brian Mason, a Dallas entrepreneur and partner in LOOK, opted for three more of “what we think are the best dining auditoriums in America,” he says, and not only because of the power reclining chairs. “They are served by one of the great restaurants in the Dallas area, if not the country. Nick & Sam’s Grill is a truly iconic Dallas restaurant. Their fine kitchen and sophisticated wine cellar are open to our cinema guests, and their dedicated servers and staff go directly into our dining theatres. We think ‘LOOK & Dine’ makes for a very special night on the town.”

With designs from Venice, Calif.-based Tony Pleskow Architects, the layout reflects that dual service option, which is different from how Showcase SuperLux serves up dinner at the movies with two separate operations for in-theatre and cucina dining, as highlighted in FJI July . “The common wall between the cinema and the restaurant is the kitchen,” which Stephenson calls “oversized” in order to serve both efficiently. “In our main concession area, we make our own chips and queso, and we make our own hot dogs. So we are providing a more special experience there as well,” he adds.

“We have created multiple experiences because people use theatres in different ways at different times.” Stephenson draws from experience and not just from his ten years of growing Rave Motion Pictures into the fourth-largest U.S. theatre circuit. “I have a six-year-old daughter whom I would take to one of our ‘General Admission’ auditoriums to see a family movie,” he says, citing the fourth auditorium option. A blockbuster spectacle like Man of Steel, “I would want to see…in the greatest experience available on one of our giant Evolution screens and hear it in fantastic Dolby Atmos sound. If I was having a tough week, I can chill out in The Loft with a glass of wine. Pressed for time, as you probably are a lot if you have a six-year old,” he chuckles, “you can choose to have dinner and watch a movie in our dining auditoriums.”

While the reactions to those options have been “really good” in general, early developments have proven that Stephenson is on the right track with the concept too. Forty-eight percent of tickets sold on opening weekend of Man of Steel were for the Evolution screens and The Great Gatsby was “a huge success” for LOOK & Dine, he notes. “This past weekend, The Heat proved to be a great match-up in The Lofts around our central bar. People are definitely using the complex in different ways, depending on what kind of movie they want to see.” He has observed that the audience itself is composed of both the same people attending various movies and experiences, as well as different audiences coming in for different options.

Family films “will be the next part of our growing business,” he declares, naming Monsters University’s 60% spike for his General Admission numbers. This being Texas, “there is no age restriction for the dining auditoriums,” where alcohol is available, he confirms. “Even the 21-and-over Lofts are for those 21 and older unless accompanied, so there is still some more flexibility,” although he foresees them continuing to skew older. Weekend brunch “has been one of our other great offerings, both at Nick & Sam’s and at the theatre.” And that includes families once again.

Stephenson will certainly continue to offer several auditorium options for the same film, with big titles being available “across multiple experiences so that our guests can choose how they want to see it.” Even if that means “unfortunately” turning down some other product. As this is one of the real differentiating factors, it makes good sense to take advantage of having “created all these different experiences under one roof.”

And a decidedly modern roof it is. Stephenson describes the look of LOOK as “artistic and architectural, but it is also fun.” After the opening of Coal Vines “at the other side of the plaza as you walk in, LOOK Cinemas now has two outdoor patios as well.” The location in Prestonwood, he says, “is smack-dab right in the middle of the Dallas Metroplex. Within ten minutes you have 750,000 people in a very desirable demographic. Hillstone, another well-known restaurant, has been across the street from us for some 25 years. It has been a really great location for many restaurants and businesses for a long time.” Not surprisingly, movies and dining were part of that tradition as well. “We knocked down an old theatre—it was the UA 5 30 years ago, which operated a Studio Movie Grill in its last incarnation,” he confirms.

Going forward, Stephenson plans on launching several more LOOK Cinemas. “We have signed letters of intent for two projects already and they will be announced relatively shortly.” He mentions another site in Texas and one in a “Southern-Midwest” part of the country. “We are also looking very closely at a couple of projects in Los Angeles.” Stephenson remains hopeful that he will be able to get construction on one, if not two projects started before the year ends. Prestonwood Creek will serve as the prototype and they will all have something special, he promises. Stephenson relays the story of taking his daughter to Rockefeller Center in New York City a couple of years back. “When you take a four-year old to see Rockefeller Center for the first time, it is like a big ‘Wow’ experience. At LOOK Cinemas as well, we are trying to put that ‘Wow’ back into the theatre business.”

The Dish on Dolby Atmos

Thanks to the June addition of five more films mixed and rendered in Dolby Atmos that included productions from Spain, Canada, Germany and Korea, Dolby Laboratories surpassed 50 titles within one year of launching the object-based sound platform with Disney/Pixar’s Brave. In recognition of this global milestone, we look back at another milestone that was recorded back in April. Dynamically directed by Joseph Kosinski, crisply photographed by Claudio Miranda (mainly in 4K) and, most importantly, masterfully mixed at Skywalker Sound by Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Gary Rizzo (dialogue and music) and re-recording mixer Juan Peralta (FX), as well as sound designer Ren Klyce, Oblivion was the first film to be “natively rendered” in Dolby Atmos.

What does that actually mean? And how was it different from the earlier titles released in Dolby Atmos? We asked Stuart Bowling, Dolby’s worldwide technical marketing manager. “Based on where the previous films were in their production schedule,” he explains, “they were conceived to be played back in either 7.1 or 5.1 channel sound. In rendering them for Dolby Atmos, we were able to go back and take advantage of certain available elements in the Dolby Atmos scheme. While this creates a compelling experience, the process of starting with the 7.1 or 5.1 mix does have limitations, by comparison to what one can actually do with starting the mix natively in the Dolby Atmos format.”

Conceiving Oblivion from the ground up, Bowling says, allowed “production talent to spend a lot of time thinking about the availability of space that they could use. Separating out elements of the music, for example, spreading out the strings and the brass into the room helped them resonate and make the visuals very impactful.” He goes on to name the many scenes in which Tom Cruise is flying around in the Bubble Jet. “Using the wind and other great elements helps to orient you as the viewer in the environment that you and the character are in. You are no longer an observer watching the movie. Dolby Atmos makes you part of the experiencing by matching the visuals that are taking place on and off the screen in a more lifelike way around you within the auditorium. Mixing in this way gives the creative community a lot more freedom because all the elements are discrete now. The other great benefit is that we can now render out a 5.1 or 7.1 capability very easily from the native Dolby Atmos mix.”

“You are going to see a lot more movies rendered natively that way going forward,” he predicts. At press time the growing slate of Dolby Atmos included such films as Monsters University, The Heat, Pacific Rim, The Wolverine, Elysium, Gravity and the second chapter of The Hunger Games, “either mixed, released or soon to be released in the new format.” And the choice is getting broader too. “A lot of people instinctively say, ‘I get sci-fi, I get action or a fantasy’ for Dolby Atmos, but can it really help beyond that?’” Bowling believes it will. “In fact, any situation where a director wants to help create that sense of space and dimensionality, the capabilities of Dolby Atmos let them literally pull the sound into the room and down to any individual speakers.” Bowling calls it a strong “sense of imaging with the sound. Especially with music, you can make it more impactful, because those are the auditory cues that filmmakers use to elicit or build up a scene’s tension and to create an emotional response that ties you in with what’s taking place on the screen.”

Bowling closes with a musical analogy. “Like all new technology, Dolby Atmos is an instrument in that everyone is learning how to use it. As many great mixes as we have heard, I think we haven’t really reached the full potential yet of what we can do with the format. As filmmakers get more and more experienced in using Dolby Atmos, they’ll dream up new ways to bring it to life for audiences. Me, personally, I was really excited about the first horror movie to release, Mama,” he laughs. “A really good horror movie is ideal to use Dolby Atmos to really freak out the audience.”

And there are more and more places to do just that. By June, the number of installations planned for Dolby Atmos across Europe, the Middle East and Africa had doubled, with Asia/Pacific, the U.S. and Canada as well as Latin America also showing continued growth. “The Dolby Atmos cinema sound format has become the preferred choice for leading film exhibitors around the world,” Bowling assures. In view of recent deals with Odeon and UCI Cinemas Group (Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom), Regal (United States), SPI Cinemas (India) and Wanda Cinemaline Corporation (China), these major deployments bring the count of planned installations of Dolby Atmos to more than 200 screens globally, representing a fivefold increase over the install base at the beginning of the year.