Boutique Theater
Nik Schulz Boutique Theater

At the new flagship cinema of the Landmark Theatres chain in Los Angeles, you come up the escalator from the street level and are greeted by a curved wall clad in Venetian plaster. Inside the lobby is an illuminated desk fabricated with reed-embedded resin—a box office that's not a literal box but looks more like the check-in at a boutique hotel. The standard movie-theater decor is conspicuously missing: the neon, the life-sized star cutouts, the tacky wall-to-wall carpet (where there is carpet, the architects—of L.A. firm PleskowRael Architecture(s)—specified FLOR, an environmentally friendly product). Over at the concession stand, LED screens display a menu of upscale items like Peet's Coffee and specialty candies from Japan.

There is a small concierge desk made of basalt stone tile and, next to it, a glass-enclosed display selling hard-to-find DVDs and books about film. A wine bar, created with the help of Dallas-based interior designer Dana Foley, is tucked into the negative space created by the auditoriums above. Marking the entrances to the theaters themselves are sheet-metal– clad portals and illuminated thresholds. Theaters range from 55-person screening rooms, known as “living rooms” and outfitted with couches from Ligne Roset, to 300-seat auditoriums. An usher greets you at the door and escorts you to your reserved seat. There are no commercials before the film, no on-screen trivia or mind-numbing Muzak. Instead of previews, you get live announcements about what you are about to see from the informed staff. Every detail is in order, down to the fresh flowers in the bathroom.

Which is why, despite its contemporary design, Landmark's CEO Ted Mundorff sees the new flagship as a nod to the past: “It's a return to service, a revival of the customer experience that was around in the '30s but has since diminished,” he says.

Not long ago, the average American movie theater was big on square footage and short on personality. Cookie-cutter interiors made it difficult to distinguish one venue or chain from another. The introduction of stadium seating in the 1990s drew audiences with the promise of enhanced comfort (not aesthetics) and became the dominant trend in the late '90s and early 2000s. Stadium seating “led to record attendance in 2002 and record box office in 2004,” says Patrick Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), an industry group. But its novelty is wearing off, he says: “People are looking for something more.”

Lots more. Today, the industry is experiencing a burst in construction and renovation activity. Movie exhibitors around the country are tempting patrons with new, carefully designed theaters that cater to increasingly sophisticated desires. Parking lots, popcorn, and box-office lines are being replaced by valet parking, bars and restaurants, and online reserved seating. Companies ranging from industry giants Regal and AMC to the art-house Landmark hope to pull in bigger box offices through enhanced architecture.

“About every 11 years, there's this spurt cycle where people reinvent what going to the movies is all about,” says veteran entertainment architect Mike Cummings, principal of TK Architects in Kansas City, Mo. Cummings believes the industry is now in the midst of one of these overhauls. “The [trend] before this, of course, was stadium seating and the big megaplex. But that's not what we're seeing anymore. There is a lot more attention to brand and to design.”


IMAX Theater

Huge screen and surround sound - Stadium seating - New digital projection system, less expensive for theaters to install
Nik Schulz IMAX Theater Huge screen and surround sound - Stadium seating - New digital projection system, less expensive for theaters to install

Theater owners across the country are discovering that good design is not just pulling patrons from competitors —it actually helps create new audiences. People aged 35 and over, who skipped going to the movies in the past few decades, are coming back. “The dependable market for movie theaters over [the last] 30 years has been teenagers and young adults,” says NATO's Corcoran. “While that market continues to slowly grow, the biggest growth is in people 35 and up. They tend to have a different idea of what a good movie experience is, and they have more disposable income.”

Several new cinemas in the Landmark chain are designed to appeal to this market. Founded in the 1970s, Landmark aims for a sophisticated adult crowd by showing critically acclaimed and independent films. Eschewing the big-box footprint, the company works to integrate its theaters into the fabric of a neighborhood, often investing in renovations of historic sites. Landmark's popular Sunshine Cinema, for example, opened in 2001 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan after fitting five auditoriums in an 1898 building that once held a Yiddish vaudeville theater.

PleskowRael worked with Landmark on the Sunshine before designing the flagship, which opened last summer. Situated in a new wing of the Westwood Shopping Mall on Pico Boulevard, The Landmark, as it is called, is the first luxury cinema to come to West Los Angeles. At just under 47,000 square feet, the cinema is half the size of the average multiplex.

Rather than slotting into a big square anchoring one end of the mall, as many cinemas have done in the past, The Landmark occupies a two-level space within the mall itself. The theater's lobby and seven of its auditoriums are on the mall's second floor, sharing space with the mall common area and a Barnes & Noble. Five more auditoriums are located on the third level.

Landmark wanted to make sure that the wine bar and a concession stand located on the lobby level would be open to everyone, not just moviegoers. “This was one of the important programmatic components,” says Tom Rael, principal of PleskowRael. “Landmark wanted to serve not only the guests of the flagship, but also the patrons that would come up from Pico Boulevard to shop and have a drink before dinner.”

So the architects displayed the cinema to pedestrians below through a large glass exterior wall. Inside, they avoided long, narrow corridors and let the curve of the third-level auditoriums create sculptural overhangs for the lobby below. “We [captured] the undersides of the auditoriums for a more fluid space,” Rael says.