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R&D-orama

So what's the real deal with Paul Allen's Cinerama venture?

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    THE BLOCK-LONG LINES of fans at Fourth and Lenora currently testify to the drawing power of Star Wars, which should fill the Cinerama with repeat-viewing kids until Labor Day. The attendant ticket revenues could buy a lot of hyperdrives, as Watto, the winged pawn-shop merchant of Tatooine, might say.

    For now, Phantom Menace is clearly generating a handsome windfall for Cinerama owner/reviver Paul Allen, but for how long will the Force be with him and his lavishly remodeled, state-of-the-art movie house? Despite the Star Wars hype and torrents of local praise for his efforts, one has to wonder how Allen expects to profit from the huge theater, long considered an obsolete white elephant by the rest of the movie industry. Last year, Allen's Vulcan Northwest holding company purchased it and the land beneath it for $3.75 million and has since spent an unspecified amount "in the millions of dollars," according to spokesman Jason Hunke, on its complete overhaul and modernization.

    That's a massive capital investment in a historically low-margin business. Movie exhibitors traditionally make their money at the concession stand, since studios command the bulk of ticket revenues during a film's early release. Long-running blockbusters like Titanic are thus a godsend to the industry, and Star Wars: Episode I is presently granting Allen the best possible introduction to this unfamiliar new business.

    But after Star Wars, the Cinerama will become a cavernous, empty, 808-seat space with a single movie screen looking for the next great product. One local industry figure comments that "single screens are difficult" to run profitably, calling the Cinerama "a huge gamble" given its dependence on first-run event films (which occur, like the seasons, about four times a year).

    And while the theater plans to restore its rare original three-projector Cinerama system—which gave the new theater its name in 1963—in time for next spring's Seattle International Film Festival, there's no real money in the repertory market. Occasionally programming other non-Cinerama-process wide-screen epics like The Robe may be a laudable goal for the movie-loving Allen, but that's not a sustainable business plan.

    But does he even care? Day-to-day booking and management of the Cinerama falls to the General Cinema Corporation of Boston, which didn't spend a dime on the renovation. GCC spokesman Brian Callaghan, who won't divulge his company's revenue-sharing arrangement with Allen, says that "based on how business goes, Vulcan would get money back," and that Vulcan does get a slice of the all-important concession stand revenues. (Presumably, Vulcan would also share in red ink, if spilled.) Callaghan also characterizes the Cinerama as "one of the highest grossing theaters in our chain," although grosses to this point are meaningless, since the only film they're based on is Star Wars: Episode I.

    Callaghan says that a business case can be made for GCC's involvement in Cinerama because the company views it "as a twelfth screen at Pacific Place" (GCC's nearby downtown theater). In other words, the chain can gain a multiplex effect by moving unprofitable product from the huge Cinerama to a smaller Pacific Place room. (The lack of such flexibility helped kill the old pre-Allen Cinerama and its dinosaur neighbors the King and UA 70/150 theaters.)

    Vulcan's Hunke also insists that the Cinerama is "definitely a viable business" for Allen, and that it "needs to be a self-sustaining movie house." But in the same breath, he adds, "The capital investment is not something that we're looking to recoup."

    SO THE QUESTION IS, if Paul Allen is not in this for the money, what is he in it for? To which Hunke ripostes, "The rescue and restoration effort is a labor of love," part of Allen's interest in "saving a piece of Seattle's cultural history."

    Well, history is undeniably evident in the painstaking retro-'60s restoration job (check out that wallpaper!). But it is more likely that Allen's Cinerama is intended as a futuristic technology showcase and laboratory. "One of Paul's mandates was that it had to be the best experience—period" for moviegoers, Hunke says.

    That "experience" includes Vulcan's patented, plasma-screen "active movie posters" and the latest digital sound system (augmented by the groovy waved ceiling). A classic old Norelco projector was refurbished for its vaunted 70mm optics, while a 90-foot-wide curved Cinerama screen lurks behind the flat, everyday 68-foot model. Captioning for the deaf is projected onto small, unobtrusive seat-mounted reflective screens, while FM signals transmit headphone narration to the blind.

    It would appear that this is where the value of his investment lies for Allen. Hunke's observation that Vulcan "can use the Cinerama to showcase electronic cinema products" suggests that the theater may be undergoing an almost constant state of renovation, to keep up with and demonstrate advances in entertainment technology. For Allen, the return on his $3.75 million (and counting) investment may not come until years from now, when one of his companies is marketing descendants of movie-display technology first deployed at the Cinerama.

     
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