Movie Time in LA

Last time I mentioned a letter from a reader asking me to recommend great movie theaters he should check out on a visit to Los Angeles. I also suggested that out-of-towners visiting The Big Orange for our upcoming Home Entertainment 2006 show on June 2-4 (you are coming, right?) might want to include a visit to one or more of the best theaters in the world in their plans—particularly if they're from a theater-challenged part of the country. There are new multiplexes in LA suburbs, for example, that are likely better than any movie theater in the entire state of New Mexico (I know from experience, having lived in Santa Fe for 10 years and visited most of the theaters there and in nearby Albuquerque, the state's biggest city by far).

Here are my current recommendations. The order heavily favors picture and sound quality, and the rankings are strictly my own.

Mann Village, Westwood Westwood is on the west side of LA, just north of Wilshire Boulevard. It's near UCLA and gets a big college crowd. Westwood used to have the best movie audiences in LA. That's less true now than it once was, particularly with the opening of new, upscale complexes like the Arclight (see below) further east, but its still one of the few locations where you'll occasionally hear applause after a great movie, or even during the closing credits. You're also less likely to encounter rude and distracting behavior here (cell phones, annoying conversations) than almost anywhere else.

The Village is an old movie palace dating from the 1930s, though not a particularly ornate one. You'll still hear people refer to it as the Fox or Fox Village. It was originally part of the Fox theater chain, and the word "Fox" can still be seen at the top of the distinctive tower that rises above the theater. It's a frequent choice for major premiers.

The Village offers excellent projection and a big screen. It has imposing, if sometimes too loud, sound (that's the case with all of the theaters listed here, though it doesn't seem to bother most of the audience). It also has the most impressive bass I've ever heard in a movie theater. I once heard a rumor that an old Sensurround subwoofer or two is tucked somewhere out of sight here, but have never confirmed it! When you hear the pre-show THX promo at the Village theater on a Saturday night, you'll know you're not in Kansas anymore.

All things considered—technical quality, ambience, seating, the quality of the audiences, and location—this is arguably the best large theater in Los Angeles (1400 seats), and without question one of the best anywhere.

The Arclight Cinemas, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood This is often rated by locals as the best multiplex in town, if not the best theater overall. It was built a few years ago as a multiscreen complex around the old Cinerama Dome theater, which was also refurbished.

The Dome has perhaps the biggest screen west of the Mississippi. Some people don't like it because of its deep, Cinerama-inspired curve that can distort the image. Others I know have also complained that there's too much reverb here as well (from its round shape and domed ceiling—not the best acoustical choices for an auditorium). For my money the best seats to minimize both of these problems, and provide the best sight lines as well, are in the front row of the mezzanine.

The main problem I have with the Dome, however, is that I find its screen too large for 35mm films. It used to be great when 70mm was in vogue, but an 80-foot plus screen is a lot of area to light up with a 35mm frame. The image is often less than optimally sharp, two-dimensional, and a little dim. The deeply curved screen can also suffer from self-washout: the light from each side of the screen reflecting off the other side and reducing the contrast.

There's no denying that seeing a great movie at the Dome is a memorable experience. But I find the smaller auditoriums at the Arclight to be technically preferable for the picture perfectionist—brighter, sharper, and more three-dimensional—if less imposing and enveloping. The smaller auditoriums provide a properly masked, constant height image regardless of the film's aspect ratio (as do all of the theaters here—most modern multiplexes do not). They also have comfortable, extra wide stadium seating (the only stadium-style theaters on this list), screens that are plenty large for the size of the theaters, a nearly black environment that maximizes contrast, and the best projectors in the business.

The Arclight also keeps their prints in pristine shape, and, reportedly, changes them often. I saw King Kong twice in one of the standard Arclight theaters, and it was a knockout. They also don't show those annoying commercials, making up for it with prices that run from about $11 to $14, depending on day and time (most of the other theaters listed here are also over $11 now, and even a run-of-the-mill LA area multiplex is $10 at night, so this isn't as outrageous as it sounds). All seats are reserved, so you can choose just where you want to sit if you get there early enough. You can also reserve seats ahead of time over the Internet (for no extra charge)–a great way to see a hot release early in its run without having to get in line 2 hours early and then join a stampede for good seats.

The Cinerama Dome is also now equipped to show the old 3-strip Cinerama films. They have had special showings of these classics (only one or two have been properly restored), but such screenings are, unfortunately, rare. There's also a cafe in the Arclight lobby that offers good food at fair prices.

Mann National, Westwood This huge theater is a fairly nondescript circa 1970 movie palace that has seen better days. It could use a major refurbishing, including new seats. When the lights go down, however, none of that matters (well, maybe the seats).

The National's technical facilities are superb. The screen is about the same size as the flat screen at the Village, but I like the slightly curved shape of the National's screen better. I also find the sound here cleaner at high levels than at the Village. Overall, it's perhaps the best big theater sound in LA, though this depends a lot on the film. But it doesn't have the Village's awesome bass.

A recent local news story reported that the Mann theater chain might not renew its lease on the National when it runs out this summer. If it doesn't, the theater may well close. My hope is that someone will pick up the lease and refurbish the place, but the economics of running an 1112 seat theater today are formidable. Between now and July I plan on visiting this theater as often as possible.

Graumann's Chinese, Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood Easily the best-looking movie theater in LA, if perhaps a little kitchy. It was refurbished a few years ago and is in great shape. The seats also offer the best leg room in town. It's a real tourist attraction, though most tourists never go inside (they're too busy outside looking at footprints in the cement!)

The Chinese has one of the biggest screens in LA. The theater provides excellent projection quality and good sound. But the theater does have a bit too much reverb which can sometimes affect vocal intelligibility (I still don't know how it got its THX rating). The preservation and restoration police reportedly nixed the addition of visually intrusive acoustic treatment. Guided tours are available.

The touristy Hollywood Boulevard section in the neighborhood of the Chinese is a little seedy. But the new Hollywood and Highland shopping center complex, near the theater, is worth a visit, if only for its clear view of the Hollywood sign and elephant statues straight out of Babylon by way of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The new Kodak theater, the site of recent Oscar ceremonies and other stage events (it's not a movie theater) is also next door. It offers tours as well.

There's also a multiplex adjacent to the Chinese that's part of the theater complex and uses the same box office. If you go to see the Chinese, be sure you go to the main theater, not the multiplex. The multiplex is okay, but certainly not something I'd come down from Canada to experience.

El Capitan, Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood This theater was refurbished several years ago. It's an old movie palace, and larger than it appears from the ground floor. Disney had a major hand in the refurbishment, so many of the films shown are Disney event movies. The technical facilities are first-rate, though I don't like looking up at the screen, as you must here from the lower level seats. An organist sometimes plays before the show, and the flourishes of the elaborate curtains preceding the movie make for a fun, Disneyesque experience. But the prices (which sometimes include a stage show and/or an exhibit next door related to the movie) can be steep—up to $25 for the best seats, last time I went there (that price does include popcorn and a soda)!

The Egyptian, Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood This is an extensively refurbished (and modernized) movie palace that dates back to the same era as the Chinese. It has first-rate technical facilities and is in great shape, but is now a revival house so the quality of the presentation will vary widely with the program, which changes almost daily.

Mann Bruin, Westwood There's a good size auditorium and screen here with good technical quality, and it was nicely refurbished a few years ago. But I've never liked this theater's slightly barn-like feel.

Parking can be a concern at any of these theaters. The Arclight has its own parking garage—not free but reasonable for the first few hours. Some Westwood parking lots offer flat rates after 6PM, but it can be expensive on weekdays. (Many Westwood give a $1.00 rebate on the parking fee from some lots, so bring your parking stub with you.) The best place to park for the Chinese, El Capitan, and Egyptian in Hollywood is in the underground lot of the Renaissance Hotel just a half block north of Hollywood Boulevard on Highland Avenue.

To see any of these theaters at their best, making full use of their wide screens, I recommend going when they're showing a film shot in widescreen scope—that is, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 or more. You can find the aspect ratio of any film by checking its technical specs at www.us.imdb.com.

Most of the theaters mentioned have digital projection capability (the Arclight has 2-3 digitally-equipped theaters, including the Dome), but only a few films are released at any given time in D-Cinema, so these theaters aren't always showing digital transfers. Your best source for who is showing what, and whether or not it's in digital, is the Friday or Sunday "Calendar" section of the Los Angeles Times. All of the theaters I've mentioned also have websites that provide this information (just Google their names).

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