MARK STERN HAS SEEN THE FUTURE OF MOVIE theaters, and the future is television.

Way back in the mid-1950s, theater owners were already feeling the impact of TV. Instead of going to the movies, the American public was turning to the tube for entertainment. Hollywood responded by offering the country something they couldn't get at home: big sound, and a gigantic screen.

Now, nearly half a century later, the proliferation of laserdiscs, big-screen TVs, and DVDs often makes the ordinary living room experience better than a night at the multiplex. Once again the time has come to tempt complacent consumers out of their entertainment cocoons and back into the world. Some theaters, such as the recently remodeled Cinerama, do it with style, others with substance (note the diversity of programming found at our independent venues around town). Now a new player, Mark Stern, will attempt to do it by building the first in a series of cinemas intended to meld movies and TV with a luxury bar environment.

After more than 20 years in various positions at his father's movie theater in Chicago, Stern decided to build his dream project in Seattle. He chose our area for the same reason most theater chains are fond of us: we have more screens and, proportionally, more movie patrons per capita than anywhere else in the country. For months, Stern and his wife, Katie, looked in vain for a venue; then a chance conversation with a waiter pointed the pair in the right direction. Beneath one of the area's trendiest restaurants, El Gaucho, and across the street from the posh Marco's Supperclub, was a space which met their needs to a T. The vacant location was a former movie venue known in its brief, failed existence as the Casbah.

Despite the Casbah's almost immediate implosion in early 1998, Stern is convinced that his new venture will have something the former owners missed: vision. He indirectly portrays the Casbah founders as fools--and to a certain extent they were--with a well-intentioned but misguided "build it and they will come" mentality. The Big Picture, as the Sterns' concept is called, is different. Where the Casbah catered to a diminutive classic film and art-house crowd, the Big Picture will play the big pictures that everybody loves. The plan is to play box office favorites after they've been released on video. And initially, the way they'll play these films is unique for a venue of its size. They'll show them on video.

When the Big Picture opens ("around May 18th," says theater management) there won't be a movie projector in the place. Instead, the Big Picture will openly embrace the latest technology with the best video projector money can buy. With its 11' x 25' screen, 88 oversized seats, and an extensive sound system (including three subwoofers where one would probably do nicely), the theater will be the best public video screening room in the state. No expense was spared to create an atmosphere of the highest quality--and with a renovation budget in the mid six figures, it had better be nothing short of spectacular.

Changes were not restricted to the screening facilities. Upon entering the Big Picture's ample, 3,800-square-foot space, you'll find a grand oak bar, with an adult beverage selection limited to beer, wine, and champagne. There are also various rooms available for private use--at a price, of course--with tantalizing names such as "the Living Room," "the Back Room," "the Oasis," and "the Nook." (See sidebar.)

"Why do movie theaters only show movies?" This is a question which has nagged at Mark Stern; in answer, he's devoting a significant amount of programming to television--sporting events, popular TV shows, awards programs, etc. Despite a decline in TV viewership for particular shows, Stern believes there is an audience interested in watching TV in a social setting. Want a magnificent view of one of the NBA playoff games--or an episode of The X-Files--replete with a beer or two, in a smoke-free environment? This is the place to go. In this way, the Sterns see their theater as a new breed of bar--one with the largest TV around. The hard part is, it's illegal for venues to charge admission for public screenings of television programs. Then again, the Big Picture isn't limited to television. There will be movies--proven hits that have just been released for public rental, played off of DVD.

Certainly you've noticed the FBI warning at the beginning of every rented video, the one forbidding public performance. This warning applies to a few smaller places in the city currently involved in showing movies and television shows for free, places which mistakenly believe that as long as they aren't charging admission, their screenings are perfectly legal. Unfortunately, they aren't. Mark Stern knows all about these laws, and is approaching the subject from another direction. There are methods of licensing the rights to videos so that you can show them to an audience and charge admission. This sub-category of film distribution is known as the non-theatrical market; it's the system used by schools and churches to legally show movies in classrooms and living rooms across the nation. Prices for "non-theatrical" video screening rights generally range from $75 to $125, or even more.

Of course, the Big Picture isn't a school or a church, just a bar that happens to call itself a theater--and one limitation of non-theatrical distribution is that advertising is expressly forbidden. No print ads, no flyers, no posters. An initial concern, then, is how will anyone find out what is playing? No answers yet, but here's a better question: Even if people did know what was playing, why would they go? Without describing exactly how the breakdown will occur, the Big Picture has indicated that ticket prices will range from $5 to $15 per person, depending on what's playing. This, for films just released on video. Regardless of the quality of the video projection, why would you pay a premium for something you could rent at any video store, particularly if you've already passed up the opportunity to see the film in its initial run?

Cinema, in the earliest days, was primarily an entertainment of the lower classes. In the silent era, the popularity of lavish films about royalty and the wealthy were largely due to the masses' desire to glimpse how "the other half" (rather, the other two percent) lived. Eight decades later, the commercial success of the movie business is still largely built on poor, and often young, audiences. It's still a relatively inexpensive entertainment. Those with excessive incomes seem to have little time for movie theaters (unless they build their own). Even in the new upscale venues, like General Cinema's forthcoming "cinema-pub," the Cinema Grill in North Seattle, ticket prices remain relatively low, despite the illusion of grandeur. (Like Cinerama, the Grill isn't expected to cross the $8 barrier.) The new cinema-pubs, so popular in Portland and elsewhere (although slow to catch on here because of Washington's severely pre-emptive liquor laws) make their money on food and spirits, not tickets.

Stern, however, wants the reality of opulence rather than the illusion. His space is truly lavish, and you'll certainly be expected to pay for the experience. He intends to lure patrons from El Gaucho and the adjoining Pampas Club into his basement lair. This, incidentally, was also the plan of the Casbah owners before him, but ultimately the Casbah wasn't able to provide the entertainment these upscale individuals desired. Only time will tell whether the Sterns understand the pulse of this target market any better.

But Mark Stern trumps with enthusiasm what initially appears to be absurdity. He's convinced that his plan can work--but as with any bold new venture, the verdict lies with the patrons. It's just possible he may have hit upon an overlooked market. If he's right, there will be other Big Pictures (already in the works for Florida and Illinois). There may be an audience for this kind of entertainment, although perhaps not the audience the Big Picture is aiming for. Ordinary individuals will stop by, curious to see what the place is about. It's anyone's guess whether they'll come back.

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