The Cinerama Dome: Take 2

Ken Pohlmann got the jump on me in his blog this week, but the recent permanent (?) closing of the Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood is a significant event. Perhaps I can add a slightly different perspective.

When I lived in LA from 2000 to 2015 the Arclight theater in Hollywood was one of my go-to haunts whenever I wanted to see a top-drawer movie release in a premier theater. The Cinerama Dome was the main attraction in this multiplex, but the other Arclight screens were also impressive, though the sound in both the Dome and the others were never my favorites (a bit too loud and edgy). And at least until I moved away in 2015, none of the theaters in the complex offered the fancy reclining leather seating that now grace many upscale theaters. But they did have reserved seating (not common until recently), and in another rare touch an usher would come out before the show began to introduce a movie and then remain in the theater for a few minutes to insure that everything was functioning properly. How many of you have left your set in ordinary theaters to search out the manager (or at least a popcorn-pusher) to complain that the picture was out of focus or the sound wasn't working?

The Cinerama Dome first opened in 1963 and at that time was not equipped to display Cinerama in its original, three-strip, three-projector form (unlike the earlier Cinerama theaters in other big cities such as New York). The Dome's screen also had a significant flaw; it was so deeply curved, a shape exclusive to Cinerama, that light from one side of the image would reflect off the opposite side, slightly washing out the side images in bright scenes. The best, and earlier, Cinerama screens were composed of separate vertical strips, each of them angled separately to reflect the light in each area directly at the audience.

As you can imagine, such screens must have been wildly expensive; its lack at the Dome was likely either a cost cutting move or a poor decision. The problem wasn't bad enough to bother most viewers, but I could never ignore it. At one time there was a dispute over whether or not to replace the deeply curved Cinerama screen with a new one better suited to modern projection. The preservationists prevailed.

Nevertheless, the big, deep screen was a draw for many moviegoers. Even before 2000 I had frequented the original Dome either when I lived in LA at other times or had a reason to visit. I saw Terminator 2 there in the early 90s — one of my seminal moviegoing experiences despite the deeply curved screen issue that I wasn't yet conscious of (or at least found easy to ignore in my less critical days).

I also saw a restored print of Lawrence of Arabia there in the early 2000s. Up to that time the Dome was still a one-screen theater, used first for (single strip) Cinerama releases and later for more conventional, first run movies. But shortly after the Lawrence showing it closed for two years while the facility was expanded to create the Arclight multiplex with the Cinerama Dome (and the original, deeply curved screen) remaining as its main attraction.

After that rebuild the Dome itself appeared little changed, but behind the scenes it was modified with extra projectors, projection booths, and the gear needed for Cinerama sound, making it capable of running three-strip Cinerama films 40 years after that format became essentially obsolete! The theater's new three-strip capability was only used for special showings of early, historic Cinerama productions.

But in recent years the Cinerama Dome no longer offered Hollywood's best movie going experience. At roughly the same time as the Arclight construction the historic Chinese theater, a few blocks away, was itself radically modified. Steeply-raked stadium seating (they had to excavate into the basement for this!), a 90-foot wide screen, and updated projection and sound were all new (as was a new multiplex next door, which was nothing special apart from profiting from the Chinese Theater branding). Chinese electronics manufacturer TCL acquired the naming rights to the big screen, thus making it the TCL Chinese Theater — it hasn't officially been called the Grauman Chinese theater in decades, though the habit of calling it that is hard to break. The TCL Chinese remains open for business, but the Cinerama Dome had one distinct advantage over it, at least for locals; it was largely ignored by the streams of tourists that flood to the TCL Chinese — at least in normal times.

What will now become of the closed Cinerama Dome and its attached Arclight multiplex? One saving grace is that the Dome had previously been named a Historic Landmark, thankfully putting legal obstacles in the way of the wrecking ball. So at least for now the infrastructure is still there and still fully functional. But the questions remain much as Ken laid them out: (1) Are audiences, now addicted to streaming and still a bit jittery about COVID, ready to return to the theater? (2) Is a well-healed company (Amazon, Apple, Walmart, or even a film studio like Disney) ready to take a chance on buying and re-opening the Dome and its sister Arclight screens?

Those questions apply to movie theaters in general. Despite the growth of streaming, I do believe there's an audience that's ready, or soon will be, to see major films on the big screen with big sound and a responsive audience enjoying the experience as they do. Those of us in the home theater game often forget that most consumers, on average, are likely still watching streamed video on a 55-inch screen (or smaller, minus the black bars on widescreen movies), and listening to the audio from the TV's built-in sound.

I have a good friend who has just resumed coming over to my place monthly for the big screen experience after a year-long break (we're now vaccinated). His home TV fits that description, with the bonus of it being over the fireplace with the best viewing seats an estimated 15 feet away. But he and his wife still regularly frequent our now-open local AMC multiplex here in Florida. I haven't yet resumed going there myself, but am looking forward to seeing one or more of the long-delayed blockbuster releases on that theater's Dolby Cinema and IMAX screens. That includes the new version of Dune, which I can't imagine anyone being excited to watch on a 55-inch screen with TV sound! On a big home screen with a good surround sound system, sure, but that's a tiny percentage of the moviegoing public.

And don't ignore the fact movies are prime date-night entertainment for the teen and early 20's crowd. That means in a theater. You don't invite your date over to see the latest Marvel release with your parents and siblings hanging around. Not cool. And as any studio can tell you, fans in that age bracket dominate weekend theater ticket sales.