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TOPIC: Circular: a more efficient theater design?

Circular: a more efficient theater design? 28 Oct 2006 16:59 #29128

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In some recent conversations we've had concerning new theater builds, we decided to think completely out of the box to see if we could come up with a more efficient theater design than a simple rectangle for a 6-screen. We thought a pie-shaped theater (like the pentagon) would be interesting; the projectionist would position him/herself in the center of all projectors instead of walking back and forth, the individual theater entrances would lead into a central entrance and possibly reduce the number of restrooms, and a curved concession area would be very interesting. It shouldn't be noticeable inside the theater except there may be slightly fewer seats in the back than in the front, which isn't unusual in standard designs anyway. Has anyone seen a theater designed in this configuration, or are there any major obstacles that would prohibit this type of design?

"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 30 Oct 2006 05:41 #29129

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Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles to a "pie-shapped" layout. The first requisite to auditorium design is Sight Lines, the horizontal and vertical limits to viewing the proscenium from any one seat in the house. In practice, this is determined by the intended seats on the outer edges of all banks of seats on all levels. The wider an auditorium is at the front, as in a Pie-shaped design, the worse would be the sight lines toward the stage/screen on that wide front wall. Poor sight lines mean that some seats are unused or unsold, which means a loss of income. Any good business plan would disclose this potential deal-breaker.

Having all projection in one circular room at the center of the 'pie' would cramp the space needed to service the machines unless the diameter of the floor were quite large, and that would obviate any expected economies of space.

Lavatories are usually determined by local building codes as being so many toilets (water closets, urinals) as a ratio to the number of seats, so one may not be able to reduce restrooms without running afoul of the law. Central restrooms might reduce plumbing runs and the need for recirculators, but not the total number of fixtures.

A circular concession area is interesting, and has been done a number of times but without a 'pie' of auditorium 'slices' as far as I know. The 18-screen "Colussus" in Toronto is perhaps the largest circular concession existing, though it uses standard stadium seating auditoria.

Another consideration is emergency traffic flow (how fast the place can be emptied in haste), and this is addressed by the national Fire Code (a product of the insurance industry) which is legally adopted by most municipalities. As the width of an auditorium increased toward the front, the need for more radian aisles from back to front would increase so as to keep the maxiumum number of seats in a row within legal maximums. This would create a near union of aisles at the rear which would congest exiting traffic, a known hazard.

Often the shape/layout of a theatre/cinema is more determined by local building code limitations than architects' or owners' imaginations, and in the interests of public safety, that is all for the good. Safety concerns as well as potential performance and audience acceptance limitations are not lost on the banks which almost always finance such building. The more radical a design, the more unwilling a bank usually is to underwrite a building which they may not be able to easily sell if in foreclosure. And if their customary insurability review turns up doubts as to fire code conformity, such a 'pie' may remain in the 'oven' forever awaiting financing, not to mention local building code approval.
Jim R. (new E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) member: www.HistoricTheatres.org
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 30 Oct 2006 08:25 #29130

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Jimor, you make some really excellent points, some of which we hadn't considered. To address some of the concerns...

- In theory, could one design the auditoriums conventionally (rectangular) to have the same, proper sight lines as is expected? Only the building itself would be circular, but the auditoriums would remain standard.
- Having a central projection area would indeed need to be large enough to create access to all the projectors for maintenance, reel changes, etc. The circular aspect would create an efficiency for the projectionist only, but the number of square feet would probably be the same as a straight booth and a savings in cost would probably not be seen and probably even increased.
- As long as the number of toilets/urinals/sinks/etc. remained for the proper ratio to seats, we were considering reducing the number of lavoratories but make them larger. As in a baseball stadium, the lavoratories are huge, yet there are only 2-3. This should see an overall savings in cost- adding fixtures to a room is cheaper than adding more rooms.
- Having standard auditoriums would eleviate the concern with emergency traffic flow.
- Yes, there is the issue of bank financing a non-standard architectural design and you're right, they may have a concern with re-selling if a foreclosure was ever an issue. This could be taken into consideration up front to make it usable for other venues other than a theater (conference rooms, restaurant, museum, etc.). Given that other circular buildings have been constructed (The Pentagon, Space Needle Restaurant, Las Vegas casinos, Disney attractions, etc.), there would be a precidence with which we could possibly tap into.

The reason for unconventional thinking in this case is to create a unique atmosphere for patrons- something completely different from the standard shoe box design. Different is profitable, so I believe anything that keeps customers coming to theaters is worth at least looking into. Any reason to make it an experience in itself is a good reason IMHO, and we hope the banks will agree.
"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 30 Oct 2006 17:15 #29131

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Photos of the Colussus megaplex are in this book: "Palaces of the Night" by John Lindsay at: http://tinyurl.com/yeht4f

Designers of Colussus megaplex: http://www.norrlimited.com/sports_recreation4.asp

Cinemateer, your ethos is right in line with my thinking when you say: "The reason for unconventional thinking in this case is to create a unique atmosphere for patrons- something completely different from the standard shoe box design. Different is profitable, so I believe anything that keeps customers coming to theaters is worth at least looking into. Any reason to make it an experience in itself is a good reason IMHO..." While I do not believe the social future of the cinemas is rosy, I do agree that for the present, making a cinema an "experience" is vital to being competitive! The final chapter of the recent noted book "Cinema Treasures" by Ross Melnick, does show a slight trend in the direction of making 'movie palaces' of the 21st century. If this is your intent, more power to you!

As to using a circular shell design with traditional rectangular auditoria inside, why not? You can get approval for most any exterior that the authorities think will stand up to the elements and not be a hazard to aircraft. In this regard, by all means, let your imagination soar! As has been said of the palaces: "The show starts on the sidewalk" -- or in our day, from whatever can be seen from the feeder highway. The main thing here is to KNOW the ins and outs of the vital interior spaces: Sight Lines, Acoustics, Traffic Flow, Climate Control, Projection Standards and Stagecraft (if there are to be workable stages), Adequate seating and compliance with the recent court decision re wheelchair patrons under the Americans With Disabilities act, Fire Code requirements as they are interpreted in the locality in question, and, of course, the basics such as structural, weather proofing, HVAC, Electrical, etc, etc!

If your thinking is really hypothetical, the nuts and bolts won't matter now; but if you are actually looking at starting in a few years, there is a load of research you have to do yet. Start right here by reading through the relevant Archives of the Forums as well as the FAQs! You will get a good grounding in the day-to-day problems and solutions of operation. If you are a tyro, then by all means apprentice at a local cinema to learn the ropes, which no one book can adequately prepare you for.

Projection looks easier than it really is (as do most things) but the test of adequate "booth" space is how it performs when things go WRONG, not just when you push the Start button. If you have never done a make-up for a platter when the reels arrive nminutes before the scheduled start, and some are wound wrong or mislabeled, you will wish to heaven that the room was designed with you in mind! We can sit back and speculate about how to increase efficiencies, but until it is a hot summer night with no adequate cooling in the "booth", and you and another sweaty guy are back to sticky back desperately trying to figure out why the platters have stopped for the fifth time, it may be difficult to appreciate the bottom line of projection.

You say you will go "all digital" to escape nasty film problems? Well, look before you leap when they sell it as "Foolproof," because as the old saying goes: 'Nothing Can Go Wrong", wrong, wrong ....! With mechanisms, something will always go wrong, and only experience will help you design for times of failure, rather than only for smooth times of success!

Yes, you may be able to reduce the total number of lavatory rooms by making just a couple of big ones, but that might provide enough space for miscreants to congregate in what amounts to a large 'echo chamber', and you don't want that! Policing large cinemas has become a problem in many areas, so it is a delicate line to walk between having greater amenities for the good patrons, versus providing hang-outs for dangerous types in difficult-to-supervise places. I wish I could tell you that there is a magic formula for such determinations, but there simply isn't. Traditional real estate wisdom says to devote as little square footage to non-immediate profit producing areas as possible, such as lavatories, projection rooms, and service rooms, but this has produced some of the less successful theatres/cinemas known. It sounds as though you have good judgement, and that is better than any penny-pinching, minimalist 'square foot ratio' found in any book.

Yes, there are precidents of somewhat circular buildings, but few of them are efficient or cost effective as to USEABLE space, but if it is only to be a cosmetic shell (and you have the money to squander on such cosmetics) by all means make it so, and then capitalize on that motif with large ceiling domes in the round, quarterspherical dining niches, scalloped cornices and the like, etc. A revolving door would repeat the circular idea, and some of them are now motorized and made big enough for wheel chairs. A ticket room that projects from the curved facade like a large bubble? Why not, IF you can figure out how to keep it environmentally sound in sun as well as snow without spending a fortune on heating and cooling.

If you are in ernest, then there is a plethora of books on the subject, from "American Theatres Of Today" (1930), to the latest titles listed on Amazon.com under Motion Picture Theatres, Theatre Architecture, and related topics. If you can visit the Library of Congress for a few day's reading, you will find over 100 titles on the subject, such as "Proscenium Sight Lines and Construction", long out of print, but still pertinant to designers of today! The "Concession Stand" here lists some helpful titles, and the BOOK SHOP at www.historictheatres.org lists others, so you have your reading cut out for you!

Best Wishes, Jim Rankin, member Theatre Historical Society since 1976
Jim R. (new E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) member: www.HistoricTheatres.org
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 30 Oct 2006 23:28 #29132

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Wow Jim, you're a plethora of information on this topic- thank you so much for your in-depth input!

My vision is extremely similar to the Colussus with the main differences being scale (6-plex instead of 19), cost ($32M is a little over budget!), and instead of a loud, high-tech atmosphere, it would feature antique theater decor and the atmosphere would be soothing and pleasant in order to fit more closely with our area. I may just have to plan a little weekend excursion across the border now!

I've read Cinema Treasures and enjoyed it immensely. And thank you for turning me onto "Palaces of the Night"- I hadn't come across that one in my searches. Great Amazon review, by the way.

I have been absorbing all the information from this site and the archives for almost a year now and I've been visiting numerous theaters of all types in order to gain the most understanding from multiple sources with which to base an opinion on which direction to take with a new build. I realize there are a LOT of "nuts and bolts" topics one needs to be intimate with, many of which we will hire professionals for- I know the value of leaning on those who have the knowledge I don't posess. I do just fine messing up things I actually know about!

As an Engineer, I can appreciate designing a booth with plenty of space for the unexpected things that need to be expected. The last thing I want is a booth that has been under-designed to the point where the projectionist's job is hindered beyond what is necessary. Taking consideration for the things behind the scenes is just as important to me as what patrons actually can see.

All Digital? Of course it's tempting, yes, but I have yet to be convinced that a digital presentation is superior to film... at this time. I don't want to beat a very dead horse on this topic, but I get your point.

A revolving door is a fabulous idea, and would fit perfectly within a circular design! My son got his head stuck in one last year at an upscale restaurant, so I'm a little apprehensive from a safety point of view, but I believe this particular door was not designed correctly. I'm sure they can be designed safer- it would need to be foolproof to even 8-year old children who aren't paying attention to where they are going. But that never happens, right?

As for heating, we're considering radiant. A massive amount of concrete conducts heat quite well. New advances have been made in this area that we're looking into for a circular application. The conduits (water) can be layed out in any configuration making it ideal for any shape.

We are most definitely serious about this build, and we are only interested in something extremely unique. We actually started with a pyramidial design, but talk about poor sight lines and difficult handicap access! A circular design would prove to not only be unique, interesting, and attractive (someone once said that we should be paying $8 to visit the theater... and we get a free movie to boot), but may also be efficient in a few aspects.

A little creative imagination, inginuity, and engineering put us on the moon, so anything is possible. I'm just fed up with conventional, shoe-box, rectangular, typical, expected, mass-produced theaters. It's no wonder attendance is down (well, depending on which stats you look at). I don't believe poor movie quality is to blame so much as poor theaters. Exhibitors need to do so much more than simply install 1" wider seats or replace the carpet. I, for one, am dedicated to bringing the total experience back to presentations.
"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 31 Oct 2006 05:22 #29133

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Cinemateer, your desire for quiet, antique theatre decor is music to my ears (and balm to my eyes!) and I am fervently with you on achieving this wonderful, if difficult goal. I say "difficult" only because of the nasty economics of the biz today. The palaces were possible because the builders could depend upon huge crowds of mostly well behaved adults.

Today it is mostly teens and most can hardly be described as 'well behaved!' That is the reason that the Colussus was designed for a fortune: to attract rowdy, noisy (but free-spending) teens but with the decor mostly high, out of reach. I shudder to think what today's rockers and Hip-Hopers would do to a traditional palace's fringed velvet draperies and crystal strand light fixtures!

In the tome: "FOX--The Last Word" by the late Preston Kaufmann, are photos of the draperies literally shredded by the juvenile 'patrons' before that once glorious 5000-seater was demolished in 1963. I dearly hope that your gentlemanly design can emulate such, yet escape its fate.

I am helping the owner of a defunct movie palace here in my native Milwaukee to bring it back to life, but I have little hope of restoring the glories with which it opened in 1931 as seen here: http://www.cinematour.com/tour.php?db=us&id=4027 (click on the small interior photo to enlarge it.)

If your design can feature even a little of such glory, please post your rendering here -- and tell us how you will handle the vandalism problem. I am in eager expectation! Again, I send my best wishes. Jim

(Hint: to better see the photo, use the Magnifier feature in Windows XP found at: Start>All Programs>Accessories>Accesibility>Magnifier.)

[This message has been edited by jimor (edited October 31, 2006).]
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 31 Oct 2006 20:57 #29134

I've never been to the circular Famous Players theatres here in Canada (there are none in Manitoba or Saskatchewan).

The actual branded design you're thinking of is the Coliseum, which is completely round with pie-shaped auditoriums. The Collosus theatres are giant (20+ screens usually) multiplexes that look like a UFO landing site.

Here are some pictures:
http://www.cinematour.com/tour/ca/185.html


<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial, helvetica">quote:</font><HR>This 65,000 s.f. 10-screen theatre is truly a landmark design for Thorp Associates and the Movie Theatre Industry. It is the first movie theatre built in the round. The ten giant screens back to the outside nautilus-shaped wall of the building. 2,657 seats face the screen from stadium risers within pie-shaped auditoriums. The design maximizes the number of the “best” seats in the house, eliminating the distant and off-center seats from traditional auditorium design. The auditoriums are accessible from a circular balcony overlooking the lively central lobby, which includes a variety of entertainment and food service.

This design has won an Urban Design Award from the City of Mississauga and an Architectural Design Award from the Colorado North Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In April of 2002, Joe Calvin was selected as one of the outstanding young architects of Colorado at the AIA Colorado Young Architect's Awards Gala for Excellence in Construction Documents.<HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

I would suggest Googling for more information.

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[This message has been edited by Andrew McCrea (edited October 31, 2006).]
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 01 Nov 2006 21:39 #29135

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Oh no! Mr. Calvin's design is what I was planning to a "T"! I knew the seating would be good in theory and apparently that is the case. They used pie-shaped auditoriums instead of standard rectangulars, so apparently that works as well. It's still a "loud" concept, which ours will not be, so this may be a good source with which to base our design from. It appears Canada is on the forefront of architectual experimentation in theaters. Thank you very much for the link and info, Andrew. This proves it can be done and done well.

As for the subject of vandalism, that isn't something that I believe can be taken care of with one method. I'm sure each case will need to be handled individually. For instance, in a circular design, my plan was to incorporate a pristine condition Simplex E-7 projector that I have just received to be on display in the very center of the concession area. It would be encased inside a thick shatter-proof glass case so as to keep greasy popcorn fingers, "I Love Jason" engravings, and sticky gum from anywhere near it and it's delicate mechanisms. I have also been collecting antique reels of various sizes and designs (mostly Goldbergs) to display on a wall including engraved plates with a short description under each one. They would be just out of reach of those rockers and Hip-Hopers you mentioned, Jim. These are just two examples, and I'm sure consideration for vandalism will need to be a high priority, unfortunately.

Instead of designing the theater to replicate historic theaters, I would like to push the limits a bit more and attempt to marry vintage with modern. Imagine LCD flat panel monitors showing trailers while framed in oversized ornate goldtone frames. Or feature antique patina faucets in the lavoratories, yet have them "touchless" as modern faucets are. My thought here is to appeal to the more mature audience, yet have it modern enough to satisfy teens and children at the same time.

We have also discussed the possibility of creating a lodge style theater mirroring a large hunting lodge of sorts. It would be made from large logs and feature black wrought iron, stone, and wood floors. A looming indoor waterfall would be prominant in a corner. Here in the Pacific Northwest, something along these lines would be particularly well accepted.

With so many different possibilities for improvements over boxy theaters, it's a wonder to me why so many look exactly the same, worldwide!
"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 02 Nov 2006 03:06 #29136

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The link for the photo and text which Andrew kindly supplied is: http://www.thorpassoc.com/movie.html

Unfortunately, there are no clear drawings on the site of these American architects who may have had to go to Canada to find open minded authorities to accept this new design concept, or was it merely a matter of money with our Canadian neighbors more willing to open their purse strings to new ideas?

When you say: "With so many different possibilities for improvements over boxy theaters, it's a wonder to me why so many look exactly the same, worldwide!" the answer, of course, is CHEAPNESS. They all figure 'Why spend for originality when copying the old is so much cheaper?!!' I'm glad to see that you are not of their ilk!


[This message has been edited by jimor (edited November 02, 2006).]
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 02 Nov 2006 12:48 #29137

Circular concession stands are common in the new Famous Players theatres. You can even get more pictures here: http://www.martincanada.com/gallerie/FP-Olympic/Pix.htm http://www.martincanada.com/gallerie/Kirkland/kirkland.htm

But the Colossus theatres are rectangular buildings, with rectangular lobbies and round concession stands.

The Coliseum theatres are round buildings (with wedge auditoriums), round lobbies and round concession stands, which is basically what you described originally in your main post.

There's also use to be projection booth pictures (of a Coliseum) on the http://www.ash-stevenson.com website. Try searching around there.
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 03 Nov 2006 08:01 #29138

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<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial, helvetica">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by jimor:
... the answer, of course, is CHEAPNESS. They all figure 'Why spend for originality when copying the old is so much cheaper?'!!<HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Frugality is usually a desired trait in a good exhibitionist, and even cheapness isn't bad if handled properly, but what they don't realize is that by pinching pennies in the design of their theaters, they're cutting their throats for any true success in the future. People have choices of which theaters to go to, and if yours looks exactly like your four neighbors' and all other aspects being the same, why would anyone care? Why choose YOUR theater? I truly believe that in order to survive alongside the competition, one MUST stand out. It's not a choice. The trick and talent lies in choosing where to be cheap and where not to be.
"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 04 Nov 2006 06:01 #29139

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You are so right, Cinemateer: "The trick and talent lies in knowing when to be cheap." and I believe from the tenor of your words that you will design that rare example of a cinema balanced between being a good exhibition by an exhibitor and such frugality (or cheapness) as is needed to bring the project into being. Again, we await seeing your sketch or photos here! Best Wishes. --Jim

P.S. When you used the word "exhibitionist" I think you meant 'exhibitor'; look the words up and one finds that while they have the same root, they certainly have different connotations!
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Re: Circular: a more efficient theater design? 04 Nov 2006 08:26 #29140

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Jim, it's so great to be so closely in agreement with someone with such knowledge and experience. We are very excited about this project and when we have rough draft drawings available, we will certainly post them here.

Oops... as frugality is good for an 'exhibitor', it could put a professional 'exhibitionist' out of business! Thanks for the correction- I do that often. I'm not sure why.
"In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." -Martin Landau
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