"I have seen things you people wouldn't believe," says replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner, which screened at the Cinerama in 1982. Thirty-two years later, I can say something similar about my visual and also aural experience of the new technology in the newly re-renovated theater. The depth and detail of the images on the screen (the Hulk smashing another car in the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron), and the sharpness of the sounds that circulated above my head struck me as pretty unbelievable.
What cannot be denied is that some serious money went into the three-month renovation of the Cinerama, a movie theater that opened in 1963 and has been owned by Paul Allen since 1998. (The company will not comment on the cost of the renovation, but it certainly smells like millions.) Some of the changes are cosmetic—they've reduced the number of seats from 798 to 570, but improved them in every other respect: The chairs are roomier, more comfortable, newly upholstered in orange leather, and able to recline more deeply. They've also added booze to the concession stand (a glass of wine is $8 and is served from a tap). But what matters most in this renovation is the new and powerful sound and projection technology.
The Cinerama is the first commercial venue to have a super-fancy Christie 6P laser projector. This machine, which looks a little like the robot that handles luggage at Sea-Tac, projects at 60,000 lumens (a lumen measures emitted light) to produce a dazzling picture no matter where you're sitting, and to distribute light evenly to both eyes during 3-D presentations. The power of the light is matched by the power of the sound, which flows out of the 110 speakers that are fitted all over the space. And all of this sonic richness is mixed and intensified by Dolby Atmos, a surround-sound monster conjured by Dolby Laboratories.
The goal of these improvements is of course to stun our senses in a way that no home theater system ever can. (By contrast, the average home projector kicks out between 1,500 and 3,000 lumens, while the high end of commercial units is about 35,000.) This is the battlefield for the future of the single-screen theater, and Paul Allen's wizards are betting that the full power and magic of 21st-century entertainment technology will hold their ground against the orc hordes of on-demand, in-your-pocket entertainments, including Redbox, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, as well as the dusty old mulitplex. This renovation emphasizes technology because management knows what's up: It's pretty much do something amazing or die.
Indeed, a number of the Cinerama's leading tech experts brought up their kids during a press preview of the theater. They said that their sons and daughters provided a crucial test of the project's success. If they were wowed (and they were), then the experts felt the job was done. The generation that has been fed much of its entertainment on phones and tablets in the privacy of homes needs to be won over. Comfy seats and wine won't do it, nor will chocolate popcorn or sparkly stars on the undulating ceiling or displaying Obi-Wan Kenobi's robe in a glass case in the lobby. The only way is to immerse these youngsters in an unprecedented entertainment experience. They must leave the theater with their senses exhausted and the realization that watching a movie on a Samsung phone is like watching their older teenage sibling make out through a keyhole. In the immortal words of De La Soul, stakes is high. If the Cinerama fails, it won't be for lack of spending money. But seriously, if this place doesn't save the single-screen theater, then nothing will. We should give up right here, in Seattle.
And speaking of Seattle, let's be realistic. The Cinerama is not an art house. There will be no Bicycle Thief, no 400 Blows. You don't go to a state-of-the-art tech laboratory to philosophize about the life of a village donkey or to see a chess match between Death and a medieval knight. This theater is a big, expensive risk—a luxury play. The tickets are not cheap ($15 a seat and no matinee pricing), but neither are the films that will be at home here.
Not all the breakthroughs are on the inside of the building, however. The theater's facade now features a new, bold, and very cool work of post-postmodern art by local design superstars Invisible Creature. The mural covers the corner of Fourth and Lenora with a wonderfully colorful and striking addition to a pretty dull and predictable part of the city. In a sense, this does for the building what Paul Allen might have hoped Frank Gehry's uninspired curves and colors would have done for EMP. Architecturally speaking, this mural and its effect on the building and the neighborhood might be the biggest thing that's happened this year—if not since the completion of the Olympic Sculpture Park. It's not every day that the marriage between big capital and the big arts has a happy ending, but for now, the new Cinerama looks like a success.