October 19

Feature Presentation

Behind the big screen of Seattle’s Cinerama

Cinerama has been wowing Seattle moviegoers since it opened in 1963, a year after the World’s Fair. For generations, patrons young and old would line up around the block on Fourth and Lenora, waiting to see everything from 70mm classics like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to modern-day blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or any number of big-budget superhero movies. Cinerama has long been a favorite venue for sci-fi, action, and fantasy super fans, drawing droves of enthusiastic movie buffs, often costumed, to showings. Seeing a movie here has always felt like a special event.

But all of those midnight Harry Potter premieres and the like may not have happened if it hadn’t been for Paul Allen’s fondness for this theater. In the 80s and 90s, as multiplexes outside the city gained in popularity, Cinerama faced declining ticket sales. The late 90s actually brought closure to Cinerama—it was slated for demolition, and the land it had occupied for decades was meant for commercial development. According to Josh Lackey, marketing manager at Vulcan, the story goes that Allen came across a public flier at a local video store looking for public support to save Cinerama. Allen recalled seeing movies there as a child and his love for the venue motivated him to purchase the building and property with the intent of returning it to the grandeur of its early days.

The theater has been through three renovations since Allen has owned it. Cinerama’s most recent renovation in late 2014 has been its most significant to date. It modernized the theater with the first laser projection system to be installed in a commercial theater, which provides stunning, crystal-clear images from any seat in the house, and a booming Dolby Atmos surround sound. The renovation decreased the seat count from about 800 to 570 seats. The change created more legroom, and with updates like deeper-reclining seats and red faux leather upholstery, comfort here is at a premium. Updated concessions featuring local bites from the likes of Tom Douglas, Uli’s Sausage, and Rainshadow Meats, plus local beer, wine, and cider completed the major overhaul.

The renovation of the theater included a rebrand and a polishing of the Cinerama’s aesthetic.

“When we began this renovation, the building itself was this brutalist architecture, a monolithic gray block, and wasn’t very attractive from the outside. Basically the exterior didn’t match the experience you had on the inside, and we wanted to change that” says Lackey. The team behind the rebrand decided to utilize the outside wall as a canvas for an interpretive mural, working with a local artist Don Clark of Invisible Creature. Lackey, a self-proclaimed poster nerd, came to know Clark’s work through his poster art for Seattle Theater Group and Sasquatch! Music Festival.

“He is a huge fan of Cinerama. The first time I talked to Don, he said when he saw The Incredibles there, it changed the way he illustrates,” Lackey says. The mural became an homage to Cinerama’s history and celebrates the types of movies that are synonymous with the theater. “Big, epic movies, a lot of action-adventure and science fiction,” he describes.

Look closely at the mural and you can see the architecture of the Cinerama logo in the backdrop. The shape and colors of the logo are the backbone of the mural. “The idea is that you can see movies coming to life through Cinerama,” Lackey explains. Watch a nod to the mural before each showing—the team produced an animated 30-second bumper of the mural, which runs on-screen prior to feature presentations, at Warner Bros. Studio in Los Angeles.

Aside from big premieres and blockbuster showings, Cinerama has been known to host a film festival or two, including its own Fan Favorites festival and partnerships with SIFF and TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival. The most successful Cinerama-produced event to date has been the 70mm Film Festival held in September. According to Lackey, fans of the format can expect the festival to return in 2017, and there will be intermittent runs of movies in 70mm when available. Tip: The new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will debut at Cinerama in 70mm. Cinerama is one of 10 theaters in the country to show the film in this format.

Fun Facts

* Cinerama maintains equipment to show movies in all formats, from the latest 2D and 3D blockbusters to classic 35mm, 70mm, and original 3-strip Cinerama films.

*When the theater shows classic 3-strip Cinerama films, it does so on a 97-foot curved screen, which is comprised of 2,000 vertical strips. It takes a full day to set up.

*On a busy weekend, Cinerama goes through 500 pounds of unpopped popcorn.

*The first movie shown at Cinerama was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.

*Cinerama’s highest attended movie run was Star Wars: The Force Awaken. Prior to that, it’s biggest showing was The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.

*Director of Operations Greg Wood, who owns a theater in Portland called The Roseway and books all the films at Cinerama, developed Cinerama’s famous chocolate popcorn recipe.

Story by Ethan Chung, Photos by Benjamin Benschneider, Star Wars Fans photo by Tim Aguero

At The Center

SLU is the geographical center of Seattle