In 1963, Seattle’s Cinerama theater opened with the promise of exhibiting films shot in a new ultra-wide screen, three-camera format. Sadly, only a handful of films were ever made in the Cinerama process and even today there are only two other theaters in the world that can present these films in their original three-projector configuration. Multibillionaire, Paul Allen, a Seattle native and owner of the most dominating football team in the NFL—my mighty Seahawks!—purchased the fading Seattle landmark 20 years ago and refurbished every inch of it, including installing a huge curved louvered Cinerama screen behind the standard screen for the sole purpose of occasionally presenting How the West Was Won and other super-wide-screen classics. When I saw a screening of that film a few years ago, the theater actually tracked down the projectionists who had manned the original tri-projector setup 50 ago. It was a 798-seat sellout. All this is to say I am a rabid fan of wide-aspect-ratio films. My all-time favorite movie is Stanley Kramer’s 1963 Ultra Panavision 70 comedy It’s Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. With its 2.76:1 aspect ratio, the movie was originally marketed as “single-camera Cinerama.” But those wide-screen days are mostly gone, though last year’s Tarantino western The Hateful Eight was shot in 70 millimeter using the exact same lens as Kramer’s comedy classic.
But there is good news. Super-wide screen is back now thanks to Barco. When I first learned that Star Trek Beyond would be released in the format, I made it my sacred mission to track down a Barco Escape–equipped theater. A trip to Fandango revealed that one such theater was just 15 miles from my home at the Cinemark Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue, Washington. The next closest installation was in Texas. I am, if anything, a lucky man.
On opening day, I, along with my daughter and our friend and his first-time date, Ubered to the theater. Among the capacity first-day crowd was Hall of Fame NBA star Bill Russell, apparently a Trek fan.
The first thing you’ll notice when seated (and we were up close to get as much immersion as possible) is that the auditorium is retrofitted to accommodate the two side screens (as seen above). When I had first read about Escape—in the pages of this very magazine—my initial impression was that an exhibitor would be making quite the gamble to set aside one auditorium for a such a new and unproven system à la Cinerama. However, as Barco reps later explained, “Barco Escape theaters today are retrofitted into existing auditoriums. The approach allows exhibitors to use the auditorium flexibly—showing standard 2D and 3D movies and Barco Escape releases in the same auditorium—all by simply switching the system on as needed.” Nifty and thrifty.
For the pre-show, the theater presented a snowboarding short that showed off Escape in spectacular fashion, with Barco’s Auro sound equally immersive. Our seats were perfectly situated with the side screens just inside our peripheral vision—no side-to-side head turning to take it all in. It was all quite startling.
Star Trek Beyond was a good film to initiate my Barco Escape experience. Grand, action-packed, with a powerful soundscape of phasers, starships, and Idris Elba’s villainous basso profundo, the movie showed off Escape’s promise of being truly immersive.
It’s important to note that the entire film was not presented in the three-screen format. Quiet, introspective moments between characters, expositional Sorkin-style walk-and-talks are limited to the central screen, making the sudden expansion to the triple-screen setup during action beats all the more thrilling. I kept an eye on the vertical seams between the screens, wondering if the break would be distracting. Seamless. My daughter, a production assistant for Boxoffice, was enraptured—she’s an anime-convention-going, cosplay-dressing nerd. Had this film been Warcraft, her head would have exploded. My pal, a guy with thousands of dollars of PC gaming gear in his flat, was very impressed, as was his like-minded date.
Since my Star Trek Beyond adventure, I have learned a few more details about Barco Escape. As to retrofitting theater space, Barco’s team works with theater operators to select the appropriate auditorium where the rake of the room, dimensions of the space, seat count, and viewing angles are all carefully evaluated.
Barco works with a number of screen vendors to select the correct solution for its cinema partners. It’s an end-to-end, turnkey setup—the additional screens retract to the walls and are covered with curtains when theaters are projecting more standard fare—no need to wonder what Bridget Jones’s Baby would be like in Escape.
One of the challenges I see in Barco Escape’s widespread adoption is patron awareness. I work for this magazine, so of course I had read about it. But my gaming pal had not; I showed him the special Escape Star Trek Beyond trailer and he was all in. The theater, in a prime downtown location, had standees promoting the film, and there was a big crowd at the screening. Barco has had success with its social media efforts: local press outreach, digital ads (which is how I learned of the enhanced Star Trek release), contests, and giveaways.
As audience members, we were transported. Star Trek Beyond was the perfect film to use this new widescreen technology. Kudos to Paramount, Barco, Cinemark, and the brain trust that concocted this return to widescreen nirvana. Now how about that Barco Escape It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remake. Get on that.
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