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The future of movies

Movie theater technology catching up with special effects

Web posted on: Friday, July 10, 1998 3:26:03 PM

A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly report
From Correspondent James Hattori

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- Isn't it about time for a change in the movie-going experience? After all, change has defined movies and popular culture over the years.

In 1895, the first paid motion picture show was staged. Thirty-two years later, sound entered the picture, and as we headed through the mid-point of the 20th century, color and added special effects found their way onto movie screens.

This summer, for example, special effects have generated one devastated Big Apple after another in no fewer than three movies: "Deep Impact," "Armageddon" and "Godzilla." Movie fans are on the verge of suffering a special effects overdose. Shouldn't the powers-that-be start thinking of something new in the movie house itself to lure fans through the door?

If you ask theater owners this question, they'll most likely respond that change is coming. Movie fans will soon find that a local cineplex has been transformed to mix the best of the past and future -- traditional luxury mixed with modern technology.

Movies, back then

In the golden days of Hollywood, movie theaters were nothing short of grand palaces. Attending a movie was a chance for audiences to escape dreary reality, nestled in the luxury of velvet seats and tapestries, ornate walls, and soaring ceilings.

"To go to a movie in those days is really like an event," says Bruce Carwood, who owns Metropolitan Theaters in Los Angeles. "It was a Saturday night out. And you would go out for dinner. And you would go to this big glorious cathedral."

Now there is a growing movement to bring that old-time flavor to new cinemas.

Architect David Rockwell is working on projects ranging from the new Motion Picture Academy theater in Hollywood to a state-of-the-art multiplex near Detroit.

"What we've done (in Detroit) is created a movie set so it gives movie-goers a chance to enter a space that feels like a sound stage and in fact, is very sound-stage-like in how it's set up," Rockwell says. "But the set that you're entering into is a collage of both existing and historical Detroit buildings."

Sony Theater's Metreon Project in San Francisco will be an entertainment complex, with 100-foot-tall movie screens, tiered seating, and theme restaurants

'Different and fun'

Kari Novatney of Sony Development, has similar ideas.

"You've got to make the movie-going experience something that's really different and fun, and that's going to bring you out to the movies," Novatney says.

She's overseeing Sony Theater's Metreon Project, under construction in San Francisco. Fifteen big screens, plush stadium seating -- so called because it's built in tiers so everyone has an unobstructed view -- themed restaurants and high-tech interactive areas are planned, all done in a grand style.

When asked if Metreon exemplifies the future of theater entertainments, Novatney responds, "We hope so. We hope so."

IMAX theatres show pictures on 80-foot tall screens

The IMAX challenge

But there's more change on the horizon -- led by the owners of the Oscar-winning IMAX, a giant screen format. Using a special camera shooting film 10 times the size of that used in regular movies, IMAX films are projected on an 80-foot-tall screen.

The latest feature, "Everest," about the 1996 ascent of the famed peak just days after other climbers died there, has scaled new heights at the box office, rivaling Hollywood hits.

"'Everest' has been about number 12 or 13 in the country since its opening in March, which is amazing when you consider the fact that it's only showing now on about 50 screens in North America, and originally at 10 screens," says IMAX co-owner Rich Gelfond.

The technology's positive results are leading to new frontiers in the movie industry. IMAX plans 80 new theaters worldwide over the next few years, including scaled-down venues for smaller cities. Many will include a new 3-D projection system, using goggles with shutters and speakers to give movie-goers the illusion of depth.

"We're going to have eight-story dinosaurs (come) into the audience that can eat off of people's laps," Gelfond says. "And as digital technology advances, I think the kinds of things IMAX is going to be able to do will really wow audiences and will be quite spectacular."

Other possibilities

Other companies are considering the merging of theaters with attractions, theme parks, and expos. Gerald Howland, a theme entertainment designer, pushed the theater envelope with the General Motors pavilion at the Atlanta Olympics. The audience was perched over a huge movie screen on the floor surrounded by mirrors.

Howland calls it the "infinite theater."

"We gave them the sense of what it's like to dive off the high board at the Olympics, to be in an Admiral's Cup yacht, to be at the Daytona 500," Howland says.

Getting a sense of being someplace else is getting to be more of a reality with every technological advance. And it's all coming to a theater near you.

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