Designing the future of exhibition: An architectural viewpoint on cinema's new possibilities


It is a great big world of entertainment and there are new and exciting trends being developed around the world every day. I am constantly thinking about design, cinemas and entertainment. It is what I do professionally, but it is also my passion.

Growth in international box office has been remarkable. Over the last five years, overseas returns have risen 32%. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, that represents 69% of cinema business worldwide. This growth has had a dramatic effect on studios—the movies they make, how they promote them, their release patterns and where they are premiered. The international box office is beginning to have an impact on exhibitors, too, and I am very excited to see where this will lead us.

The death of the movie theatre has been predicted for 60 or more years. First it was television, then cable, then VHS, then the DVR, then Netflix and Redbox and On Demand programming. We are all very grateful that the reports of the death of the cinema have been greatly exaggerated and could not be further from the truth.

I am constantly amazed by the evolution and reinvention of the cinema industry. Competitive forces, along with competition from other forms of entertainment, have led exhibition to continually raise the bar on the moviegoing experience. This has spawned improved presentations creating a more immersive experience. Exhibition does not rest on its laurels, it reinvents itself. That is how the industry stays current and is developing, rather than following, trends.

I have been involved with designing cinemas for 30 years, and in that time there have been several iterations of facilities in the United States:

• Thirty years ago, the shopping center cinema was king.
• Twenty-five years ago, the freestanding cinema was what exhibitors wanted to build.
• Twenty years ago, the megaplex was at the forefront of design.
• Recently, the introduction of alternative entertainment choices has become a trend.
• Today, exhibitors are focused on generating more revenue through the addition of VIP and premium seating, large-screen premiere concepts, food and beverage offerings and bars or lounges.

Reinvention is a constant in our industry and will continue well into the future. However, the design of these facilities is also evolving to meet patrons’ changing expectations and needs.

Architectural design is not created in a vacuum. It has developed in response to context and objectives including:

• Technology
• Consumer Demand
• Extending and Enhancing the Social Experience
• Compatible Social Experiences
• Alternative Content
• Customer Expectations

For example, technology is a key driver in our industry. The cinema is strongly influenced by the latest developments in the marketplace including digital cinema, 3D, 4D and 5D presentations, 3D sound and high frame rates. As to customer expectations, patrons want the comfort of their living room provided in a great environment that makes them feel good about spending their hard-earned money.

But we need to think beyond the present, so let’s look into the crystal ball and envision the future.

Content, rather than alternative content. Digital cinema has certainly made alternative content available to the cinema. In fact, the amount of content that digital production has made possible has exploded. Moviemakers no longer need millions of dollars in equipment to make a movie. This phenomenon will provide exhibitors with many more choices to offer their customers.

Interactivity will have a significant role in the future. Right now, interactivity is influencing purchasing systems and other entertainment components. How about making patrons an active participant in the story?

Customization might well be a driver of design. Think about restaurants and bar/lounges and how they can reconfigure to accommodate a specific group or event in a single, convertible space. Can an auditorium or presentation space have similar flexibility?

has always been important. Ask if your facility can be adapted or converted to the next big idea or concept. We also need to consider the evolution of movies. During the Golden Age of movies in the United States, single auditoriums accommodated thousands of customers per showing. Today, movie releases capitalize on the opening weekend and the week following with a shortened theatrical release window. How might the business model evolve and what impact will that have on the future of exhibition?

Many exhibitors are asking how to enhance and extend the social experience of moviegoing beyond the typical time that it takes to watch a film. Enhancing the moviegoing experience and providing reasons for patrons to stay longer and spend more time and money in your cinema is what we dream about every day.

No discussion about drivers is complete without considering the influence of mobile devices and social media on the business of movies and the moviegoing experience. Mobile device usage and texting is the most controversial and divisive topic in the industry. Your approach might be a “no tolerance” ban like Wehrenberg Theatres, or creating designated areas or spaces, or fully embracing the technology within the auditorium walls.

And last but not least, design has significant influence over patrons. It helps attract customers to your cinema; it helps to create a “buzz” about what your facilities offer; and, if done correctly, your patrons will be your best advertisers as they tell their friends and family about the wonderful environment you have created to entertain them through movies, food, social interaction and experiences that create lasting memories.

Patrons always have choices of where to spend their time and money. These choices are becoming more dependent on the quality of the environment and experience.

We who specialize in cinema design are always thinking about new amenities and features that can make the experience special and provide the moviegoer with that incredible escape we all seek when we go to the theatre. Please let us know if we can be helpful as you imagine the future of exhibition.

Mike Cummings is a principal of TK Architects International. You may reach him at

©TK Architects International 2013