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Designs of the Week: The Movie Theater Experience

Posted on Sunday, Nov 23rd 2008

By guest authors Charley Bush and Kathy Hwang of design and business consultancy 3Strand Innovation

When was the last time you went the movies? Was it an experience worth remembering? The movie theater industry has been facing stagnating revenues for a while now. So why have industry players continued to put little effort into innovations that will improve the user experience?

We think that walking into a theater should feel a lot more like an immersive experience and less like waiting in line to get onto a United Airlines flight. We’ve looked around the world and found some interesting examples of how movie theater designers have attempted to pave the way in this arena over the years.

1) Krikorian MetroPlex 15 at Vista Village

This movie theater opened in 2003, claiming to be a reaction to the “McDonaldization” of the movie theater experience. Owner George Krikorian said, “Elegance, class, glamour — we are going back to what moviegoing is all about.” While it’s true that the MetroPlex does not look like a McDonald’s, it feels like the designers instead chose to go with the ever-classy ambiance of a 1970s Atlantic City casino. Back in in 2003, this was considered the top-of-the-line in the theater industry. While the styling leaves much to be desired, it certainly called for a new direction, signaling the massive potential of “experience design”.

2) Pacific Theatres Glendale 18

This theater just opened its doors this year. According to Pacific Theatres’s COO, Nora Dashwood, the company has “continued to make significant strides in offering an unmatched moviegoing experience.” While the murals are a step up, the styling still gives off a casino-like feel (but more Vegas than Atlantic City). While the theater is definitely not the Bellagio, the high ceiling and crystal chandeliers do offer a sense of grandness. Unfortunately, like many things in Los Angeles, this grandness can come off as too cliché and plastic to have the intended effect.

3) The Light House Cinema

The Light House Cinema in Dublin really understands service design. They design the experience to make you feel like a celebrity, from playfully coloring your theater seats to giving you a chic café spot to chat about the movie afterwards with friends. The designers zeroed in on the emotional drivers that bring people to the movies by delivering a sensory experience through lighting, colors and open space that make you feel like a kid again. Light House Cinema captures your sense of awe from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave.

4) AMC Pacific Place Cinema, Hong Kong

This is the kind of movie theater where we would go to see the new Star Trek Movie. The designers took the movie experience concept far beyond a mere cosmetic overlay. Using new materials, a new seat design and intentional lighting, this theater presents an image of modernized glamour for today’s movie audience.

5) Paragon Cineplex, Bangkok

Now this is what we’re talking about. Sofas and seats that fully recline (complete with pillows and blankets), in-theater waiter service and new ways to enjoy the movie with friends and partners. At the Paragon Cineplex, your $10 entrance free gives you full access to a lounge with massage chairs and free cookies and coffee. You receive your ticket from the bartender and relax until starting time. In addition to world-class service and contemporary interior design in the main screening room, for about $50 per couple you can get tickets to the exclusive private screening room, one free drink and appetizer, and seats that are individual private beds. It only seats about 40 people and can serve as a private club for the night. We applaud the Paragon for trying new approaches to seating and interior design and including various exclusive services under one roof. How can we get some of these movie innovators over to the US?

This segment is a part in the series : Designs of the Week

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Hi Sramana,

The movie theatre experience has been hit by large flat screen TV’s, 5:1 surround sound home cinema, DVD’s, digital TV and a failure to differentiate. The home experience for many is now so good that the hassle of driving, parking, queuing and paying more to see the movie on the big screen which is no longer so different from doing so in the comfort of your own home.

In order to attract people back to theatres they need to differentiate. To add value to the experience more than just sell popcorn and coca cola which is also available at home.

These initiatives have done just that. Added “bang for the buck”. This is innovation and differentiation. Creating an experience and not just showing a movie which is no longer enough.

Personal favourites: AMC Hong Kong. Looks terrific. Paragon Bangkok. Looks like sheer luxury.

It is great to see such innovation and if either of these open in Madrid I would hope to see a blockbuster in such an environment.

Best wishes


David Bristow Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 12:07 PM PT


We agree with you 100%. Whereas the electronics industry has been innovating to create immersive experiences from the comfort of our own home, the US theater industry has been dragging their feet. About a year ago, we heard marketing reps from a major cinema chain say that their main concern was how to install cell phone blockers so that ringers don’t go off during the movie. Unfortunately, focusing purely on incremental improvements has missed the point of creating more value for a $10 movie ticket experience.

How about thinking of new ways to improve these customer touch-points?
1. Finding parking
2. The walk from the parking lot
3. Waiting in line to purchase paper tickets
4. Waiting in line for entry
5. Waiting in line for food and drinks
6. Finding seats in the dark
7. Waiting for the movie to start
8. Having to crawl over other people to go to the bathroom
9. The tactile quality of the floors, armrests, seats cushions, etc.
10. The walk back to your car after the movie

Charley Bush and Kathy Hwang Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 4:41 PM PT

Hello Charley and Kathy

That is an excellent post and then the followup comment. After reading the post , I thought of all the things that also need to be considered and sure enough they were mentioned in your comment.

In markets such as India, where I am based, newer movie theatre formats still seem to be going with the tried and tested. I do not see much innovation .

Also a point that came to mind was with regard to sustainability . How integrated is the movie theatre experienced with the discussion on green and sustainability. I am sure there will be concerns that customers will start to highlight.

Are you aware of such projects or innovations ?

Syamant Monday, November 24, 2008 at 5:52 AM PT