Home Theater

Home Theater’s Second Golden Age

Home Theater's Second Golden Age

There might be nothing to anything I have to say here. It’s all based on anecdote and speculation. The data might not ultimately bear me out. But, based on what I’ve heard from some of the top designers, it would seem that home theaters—or home cinemas or private cinemas or private theaters or whatever you want to call them—are going through something that could very well be considered a renaissance. 

 

Since this is more a rumination than a report, and since nobody has a better view of this particular part of the home-entertainment world than Theo Kalomirakis, I’m going to use his experiences of the past few years as my leaping-off point, and as representative of what I’ve been hearing from other, similar corners.

 

As the ’08 Recession took hold, Theo saw requests for luxury theaters decline dramatically, a trend that persisted for the next few years before settling into a kind of steady state. It was such a tremendous change from home theater’s Golden Age in 

the ‘90s that he began to wonder if dedicated theater rooms were going to fall completely out of favor, to be replaced by multi-use interlopers like media rooms and great rooms.

 

Then came the pandemic, which bore curveballs for pretty much every aspect of society, of course, but held some huge surprises in reserve for luxury home entertainment. As the enormity of the crisis sank in and it became clear things would stay dire for the foreseeable future, most people assumed we would all be hunkered down for the duration, personally, socially, economically, and culturally. But a few months in, I started hearing the same refrain from top-tier designers and integrators: Business was booming.

 

Forced to focus on a single residence, unable to enjoy entertainment anywhere but at home, and with some unexpected time available to contemplate their domestic priorities, many of their affluent clients were suddenly feeling the need for a movie-watching space that was not only completely up to date but also provided a refuge from both the increased activity in the rest of the home and from the outside world. A media room or great room, no matter 

how lavish, just wasn’t going to cut it. The desire for versatility had been trumped by the need for both escape and focus. An open-plan room meant to serve a variety of masters just can’t address those fundamental needs, no matter how well designed and constructed.

 

Based on the number of commissions the best of the best have been receiving recently, the evidence is mounting that home theaters are entering some kind of second golden age. But these new rooms aren’t just retreads of their movie-palace forebears but tend to embrace a more contemporary aesthetic, are much higher performance, and tend to be more accommodating to uses beyond movie-watching but without in any way compromising that defining experience.

 

As encouraging as all this is, my guess—and it’s just a guess—is that this phenomena will continue to play out almost exclusively at the very top of the market. Better and bigger (and cheaper) video displays and far better soundbars and streaming sources have made it easier for most people to settle for good enough in spaces that would need some serious work before they could even begin to approach great. For the broader market, where expediency rules, media rooms tend to make more sense. And, to be honest, the experience most of these people are having just isn’t that bad compared to what they were getting for the same money just five to seven years ago.

 

Maybe there isn’t a new golden age emerging. Maybe this is just a blip, an anomaly that ultimately signifies nothing. But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels like the core idea of a dedicated theater room still has legs and has returned to run another day by deriving strength from some completely unexpected places. If that’s true, it’s cause for celebration because it’s a chance to reinforce the singular importance of movies at a time when they’re in very real danger of becoming just another form of entertainment.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Mention acoustics, and most people think of concert halls. Some, but not a lot, might also think of home theaters and listening rooms. The number of people who realize the importance for proper acoustics in domestic spaces beyond entertainment rooms is so small it barely exists.

 

But the number who are aware of noise, both inside and outside the home, is of course huge. Most people would love to tame those disturbances if they could, but don’t realize they can. That’s where Steve Haas comes in.

 

Top designers, architects, builders, and integrators, and wealthy individuals turn to his company SH Acoustics to make both performance and everyday spaces sound great and keep irritating noises at bay. Steve’s work includes well-known museums, concert halls, and other commercial spaces around the world, and he has designed the acoustics for some of Theo Kalomirakis’s most famous private theaters.

 

In the interview that follows, Steve discusses how he brought his early experiences in the commercial world to bear on his work in luxury residential environments, how high-end home-entertainment spaces have expanded beyond private theaters to live performance and jamming, and the importance of proper acoustics and noise mitigation throughout the home. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

Would you consider your official title “acoustic designer”?

Depends on what day of the week it is. “Acoustic designer,” “acoustical consultant,” “acoustician”—it’s interchangeable.

 

While you began your residential career working on home theaters and other entertainment spaces, you actually operate under a much broader umbrella, right?

That is true. We’re brought into so many different types of spaces, inside and outside the home, that home theaters are obviously very important for us but we don’t just focus on them exclusively by any means.

 

Talk a little about how you evolved beyond those traditional entertainment spaces.

Well, it goes a little farther back than my residential experience because for 14 years I was part of an organization that did major commercial spaces—everything from concert halls to opera houses to Broadway theaters to houses of worship. Museums, especially. 

 

I fell into the world of residential by accident. A contractor simply called my office and said they were putting a home theater for I think it was the producer of Barbara Walters in an old historic barn—in the town I now live in, in Weston, Connecticut, ironically. So I just took it on on my own, in the outside hours, and found all these interesting challenges in the world of residential that I had no idea about. 

 

Even with everything I was doing in the commercial world, I quickly saw that dealing with this type of construction, and especially these types of clients—homeowners who wanted to spend a lot of time in this particular type of environment, an entertainment space, a home theater—very different from dealing with a symphony orchestra or the leaders of a big church or a museum director. I had to quickly decide if this was something that interested me and then realize what I had to do to change my mentality coming into this world if I wanted to continue with it, which I did.

 

It wasn’t long before homeowners started asking me, “OK, what can you do in my bedroom to quiet noise?” or “I have a lot of street noise coming into my house even though I live in a suburban environment. There are landscape trucks running up and down at 7 a.m. I don’t want to hear all that.” So, utilizing the skills and experiences I had in all these commercial environments, I realized there’s a lot more to addressing sound quality, sound control, than just in the home theaters.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
How much of this was a natural evolution from your commercial work?

To name-drop a bit, I had over-the-top experiences working on Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall [shown above] and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility, where we had to isolate entire buildings on giant rubber blocks to keep subway vibrations from going up into the major performance spaces. That’s a tall task that we conquered, but it shows that bringing this type of experience to very challenging residential environments was a natural course of evolution beyond just thinking about the sound of a home theater or a media room inside the space. We were able to take those broad experiences in the commercial world with isolation or HVAC or electrical or plumbing noise and bring them to the level they needed to be in home environments.

 

The infrastructure in homes is evolving more in the direction of commercial spaces, with the increased sophistication of technology and with more people working from home, so I would imagine that’s another opportunity to tap into your early career.

It absolutely is. We have two major projects right now, one in Texas and one in Long Island, where the clients own commercial contracting companies that are building their homes out of concrete, steel beams, and all-metal framing. Having that commercial background, we’re no stranger to what we need to think about differently than your typical wood-frame, wood-joist construction. It’s a plus to not have to be concerned at all about the different mentalities and to be able to instruct my team of engineers on how to flip the switch on their thinking for these types of homes.

 

What impact did your background in live performance have on your interest in acoustics and how you approach your work?

Thanks to my grandfather, who was both a concert pianist and a violinist in some major orchestras both in Europe and the U.S., including the Cleveland Orchestra, I got a good start at age 7 playing piano. I took that as far as I could into a lot of different types of music such as musical theater and other types of groups and clubs. And then when I got to college, I was in 

bands and had a lot of fun. Even though I didn’t play out for many years as I was focusing on my career in the beginning, I always had the opportunity to go to a job site, whether it was a concert hall, school of music, or any other type of place where they had a piano, and just be able to play in some amazing spaces—when no one was around, of course. These days, I’ve really gotten back into performing live for people and doing live sound as well.

 

Having these talents and passions has been instrumental in advocating having spaces for live music in people’s homes, whether it’s for CEOs by day and closet guitarists by night jamming in a pretty awesome room or their kids learning to play their instruments and wanting the best-sounding environments. Or maybe bringing in Elton John or Lady Gaga for a million dollars to do their daughter’s bat mitzvah or wedding anniversary or something. It’s been so much joy and excitement to be part of creating these live music spaces throughout homes all around the world.

 

How did you cross paths with Theo Kalomirakis?

By accident. The first time I tried to cross paths was at a CEDIA book signing, but I stood in a long line and he ran out of books before I got to the front of the line, so I didn’t get to meet him. But I had been following all the great work he was doing and was fascinated by it, so I reached out, being local in the New York City area, and just made the call. And it was a fortuitous one because we’ve been working together very closely ever since.

 

I just had the right mentality coming into it from having worked with signature architects and designers on concert halls and theaters. I knew how to respect everything they were doing and how to get them to respect our side of the equation as well. You cannot tell someone like a Hugh Hardy how to design a Broadway theater aesthetically, because they would never bring you back. So I learned at a very early part of my career how to play that relationship very strongly. And it just worked with Theo. He was very open to that kind of approach, and it’s just been a great relationship all these years.

 

When I interviewed both of you about the Paradiso about a year ago, we talked about how the home theater had a live performance aspect as well. But you were brought in after everything was originally designed, right?

Yes. We changed a number of things to make it more optimized not just for cinematic use but for live music. We 

installed my Concertino system, which is basically electronic architecture to recreate sounds of different acoustic spaces. You press a button and it sounds like you’re in Carnegie Hall, but when you turn it off, you’re in a very dry, calm space.

 

But live music can happen in various ways, and that’s just one way to create a live space for jamming. For the big Texas project, we have about three or four different music performance and jamming areas—like a guitar jam room—right in the room, and it’s going to be awesome what they want to do with it.

 

Most home theaters aren’t very conducive to live performance. You can have people stand in there and play but it’s going to be far from optimal.

Most home theaters are on the drier side, acoustically—hopefully not too dead. Not too live, either, but you can have a good conversation in there. And so for certain types of music—amplified, for instance—it works OK. But you need a very different method of playback. You can’t use a home theater audio system, which would essentially be behind the performer, and if you had microphones, they would feed back tremendously. You need to think about what you need to augment the cinematic experience for live music.

 

And that goes beyond the sound to things like lighting. People don’t think about the fact that you have a screen producing a lot of light from the projector but you don’t have any light for a performer up there. We’re not lighting designers, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, so we know the basics of what you need to get good front and overhead lighting for even kids performing karaoke at the front of the room.

Steve’s residential work has included the acoustical engineering for many of Theo Kalomirakis’s theaters

It’s really about thinking through the aspects that make or break the multi-use function of these rooms. Again, I take that from my experiences with big multi-use theaters in the commercial world, about what we had to do to completely transform rooms from live acoustic symphonic music to Broadway-style shows in a few hours or a day, with the technical crew moving orchestral shells in and out, and so forth. You obviously scale that down for somebody’s private theater but it’s the same kind of thing. 

 

You want to make it simple, and the Paradiso was a great example of that. You could go to the iPad, press Concert mode—or Concertino mode, in our case—and so many things happened in the background to turn off the cinema system and turn on the live-music system and put the lights in the right positions and so on. You don’t want the client to worry about everything that’s happening in the background. You just want them to press that button and go from one mode to the other.

 

Given the diverse number of things you do, is there a typical project you’re brought in for on the domestic side or does it tend to be various different things?

Absolutely various things. Certainly theaters are always a lead-in because the AV integrators have those on the forefront of their minds to bring us into the projects, but it quickly expands beyond there. It’s everything from the theater to maybe a jam room to isolating a bedroom from street noise or outdoor equipment noise or a neighbor who has a barking dog or a band that the kids are playing in. It’s amazing, during COVID especially, the amount of awareness people have now of outdoor sound environments and how they impact their homes, especially when they’re working from home. 

 

Because what you do is somewhat specialized, do clients approach you directly or are you primarily brought in through another party like an integrator?

All of the above. We get our fair share from integrators but we have a lot of great architect and interior-designer relationships, mechanical engineer relationships, contractors, and then of course the clients. We’ve built a good network over as many years as I’ve been doing this, and so one client talks to the other, and that’s how it happens.

 

How much of your first meeting with a client is education? Does the groundwork tend to be laid by whoever brought you in or do you have to explain exactly what you do and what you can do for them?

It depends on the client—and I’m sure our integrator friends can relate to this. Some clients want to know every detail; others say, “Give me the best, and call me when it’s done, and I’ll write you the checks.”

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

right: workmen apply fabric acoustic treatments to the
ceiling of the private
ballroom shown above.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

We love educating our clients—especially because so much of sound is subjective. Two people don’t think about sound in the home in the same way, including married couples. We’ve had husbands and wives get very heated with each other when talking about what does and doesn’t concern them when it comes to sound. 

 

We had one home in Park City, Utah where the architect was pretty much done with the design, and things were getting built and duct work was being fabricated, and we discovered that the mechanical systems—all 31 of them—were being built like jet engines because of special filtration needs. The house would have sounded like a factory. And the wife literally stood up and shouted, “We are so sensitive to noise, and my three kids are too!” and the husband was just shaking his head, like “Why didn’t I know?” We barely got in, put the project on hold, and quickly rectified all that so they could continue the process, and we managed to create a very quiet home. But just by the skin of our teeth because another month and it would have been way too late. It would have been an ugly situation because nobody paid attention to noise in a home where the wife and the three children were extremely sensitive, because nobody asked the question.

 

Who drops the ball in a situation like that? Who has to have that initial conversation and educate them about the need for this?

Yeah, well—who’s listening to this? In some respect, the clients need to do their own research. If they are sensitive to noise, they need to bring that to their architect and designers first and foremost. But even if they don’t, we often educate the architects in how to ask in how to ask the right questions. And sometimes we even prepare an assessment of the early design of a new home or renovation that brings out all the potential issues, from a containment and quality of sound perspective,

and then let the client decide what’s important to them and to what degree.

 

It’s important to have this up front so the whole team goes into it knowing, “Here are the things we’re going to address, and here are the things we just don’t care about,” so it doesn’t come back to bite anyone. The clients don’t want to move into a beautiful new home and all of a sudden they’re saying, “We’re hearing the kids running upstairs and every time they drop a toy or something, it sounds like a boulder.” Then we have to come in and say, “Would you rather rip up your beautiful wood floors or your ornate plaster ceiling—pick one.”

 

These are real problems homeowners have all the time

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

where we get brought in after the fact—to the point where they literally are crying because they can’t sleep because of noise and vibration issues. Acoustic wellness is part of the other wellness movements because of its impact on people’s health and stress levels. And the pandemic brought this out in so many ways with kids schooling from home, and multiple partners, spouses, working from home. People are recognizing, “Wait, our home doesn’t always sound that great,” and we can do something about it.

 

I would assume most integrators’ knowledge of acoustics is related to entertainment spaces. Given the diversity of things you can address, do you consider yourself unique in the universe of people who deal with residential acoustics?

We’re certainly diverse. It’s not often you find someone from the design and consulting and calibration standpoint who will do bedrooms, do living rooms, mechanical noise, and so on. We like being able to come into projects in various ways. And I think that does make us fairly unique—not to mention all the commercial work we are still doing, flipping our brains several times a day to go back and forth between the high-end residential and the commercial.

 

How much of your work is commercial?

The percentages vary from month to month or year to year. Usually, we’re 50/50, but with the pandemic bringing out so many domestic opportunities, I would say we’re currently 60 to 65 percent residential. I’ve really trained my consultant team—I have such a great team now at all levels—to flip their mentalities, because you just cannot bring a commercial mentality wholeheartedly to the residential world without thinking about what’s practical. We’ve been brought on to high-end residential projects where they had a commercial consultant on board who got fired because they brought things to the home builders as solutions that just had no place even in the highest-end home because they were keeping myopically in the commercial mentality without saying, “Wait, how do we bring these two worlds together and determine what is still practical within the realm of what a high-end home builder could and would do.” That’s important.

 

And the same thing with the AV integrators. They’re resi-mercial, right? They always have to think about what’s appropriate as they go from one end to the other.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
It’s inevitable that anyone who does much traveling has come across your work at some point. They obviously haven’t been aware of it, but they’ve probably encountered it.

Hopefully they have, and hopefully they have some good things to say about it.

 

For instance, you did the Statue of Liberty museum, right?

That’s right. That finished about two or three years ago—with COVID, I’ve lost track of time. And we’re about to work on the Ellis Island re-do as well. 

 

Would either of those be the highest traffic-volume venue you’ve done?

Probably the biggest traffic one would be the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That stayed packed for at least three years beyond its opening in 2016. We just could not believe how long it lasted. But it was phenomenal to see that, and phenomenal to think about how audio and acoustics hold up with that kind of visitation. You don’t have to worry about that in homes. 

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 21
QUICK GUIDE

 

  0:55  How his work extends well beyond

           providing the proper acoustics for home

           theaters

  1:21  His early experiences working on

           commercial spaces

  1:41  How a random phone call led to his initial

           involvement in home theaters & residential

           acoustics

  4:40  How his experiences working on major

           performance spaces helped him to expand

           his residential work beyond home theater 

  6:12  How homes are becoming more like

           commercial spaces

  7:21  The influence of his and his family’s

           experiences as musicians on his work 

  9:47  How he met and began working with Theo

           Kalomirakis

11:47  The Paradiso home theater as an example of

           a space that can handle both movies and

           live performance

13:30  What needs to be done with a home theater

           to make it conducive for live performance

16:49  How he’s typically approached to address a

           number of residential acoustic issues

           beyond home theaters

17:45  How the pandemic raised people’s

           awareness of the amount of noise in

           and around their domestic environments

18:24  How he is typically retained for a project

19:12  What the initial conversation is like with a

           client, and how much of it involves

           educating them about what he has to offer

21:48  The importance of the client researching

           the benefits of proper acoustics in the

           home

24:59  He offers a broader ranges of services

           than a typical AV integrator

26:21  How much of his work is commercial vs.

           residential

28:32  He has worked on so many landmark

           cultural institutions that most people have

           likely encountered his efforts at some point 

REVIEWS

Life in Color (2021)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins
The 75-Inch Revolution
Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies
The Cineluxe Hour

Working With the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Our second profile of the elite group of professionals who define luxury home entertainment features Gideon Perry, president of the L.A.-based Fantastic Theaters. Offering design, engineering, and construction services under one roof, his company is (to use his own words) “the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution.”

 

In the conversation that follows, Gideon stresses the need for architects, designers, and clients to bring the trades involved in the actual construction of entertainment spaces into the planning process as early as possible so the complex needs of these rooms can be anticipated. He also discusses the dramatic changes in luxury entertainment over the past 20 years, from increased awareness of the importance of good acoustics to the emergence of video walls as a front-projection alternative to the desire for more flexible home theater spaces. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

You provide a lot of different services but do have a typical approach to a job, or is it more about the being nimble enough to customize your process to each project?

I love car analogies. If you think of a Rolls Royce, every car is hand-built yet there’s an underlying core approach in place. We have a process we stick to pretty rigidly regardless of whether we’re doing something that’s small-scope or big-scope, small-budget or big-budget.

 

And it starts with our client questionnaire, because whether we’re doing the design or someone else is doing it and we’re just doing the build, it’s difficult to meet or exceed the client’s expectations if you don’t know what they are. Many people don’t realize what’s possible with a home cinema, so we have to gauge where the client’s at before we know what level we’re going to build to.

 

What are you typically approached for?

The one thing we don’t do is integration. We do have a handful of really good integration companies we work with, so if there is a desire for a project to be truly turnkey, we have those abilities. The design, engineering, and construction—we do all of that in-house. We have a unique facility with C&C machining capabilities, and a door factory, and a lot of different things that help us to achieve those goals. 

 

Our scope depends on who approaches us, whether it’s the client direct, a client rep, money manager, builder, designer, or whoever. Integration firms will often get the jobs and then reach out to us to help out. We work with a lot of design firms, so if

they come up with the theater design and the acoustic engineering and all that, we just build according to those plans.

 

But it’s about 50/50 as far as what our scope ends up being, whether we’re doing design, engineer, and build, or just build. We rarely do the design and someone else builds it. We also offer consulting services, so we have projects abroad in different states and countries where we will coach them along the process to make sure they’re doing it right. It’s kind of an insurance policy for the engineering you’ve paid for.

 

Is there an umbrella description for what you offer?

In the industry, we have to be the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution. Many other companies do just design, and there are obviously a lot of integrators, acousticians, and engineers out there. But there isn’t one company that does it all in-house.

 

So, at your level, you would consider yourself unique?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know of anyone else that is as inclusive as we are.

 

The fact that we do GC work gives us a unique perspective. A lot of people who design theaters have never built anything. Just like an architect, they draw this beautiful thing and apply all the local codes and all this stuff, but when the builder goes to build it, there are many changes that need to be made. For us, having worked for practically 

every theater designer in the industry, we have broad experience with what the principles are and what they’re going for, which allows us to know where we can take liberties to accommodate the field conditions.

 

Was construction your entry point to the industry?

Yes. I worked in a high-end custom cabinetry shop, and then I was an electrician, four-year journeyman, and then I got into GC work, building houses and doing remodels. And that’s when I discovered Theo Kalomirakis and home cinema at a very high level with dedicated rooms.

 

You worked on the Paradiso and were in there early on, right? 

Yeah. We were there from start to finish. What made the Paradiso unique was that there were so many different aspects. It wasn’t just a cinema—there was an arcade and a nightclub—all these different things. That was a first for us, to be that involved in the whole house—the acoustics in the arcade and creating all the soffit shapes in the bar. We were doing things that a typical builder would do.

 

How do you compare your approach to that of other people offering similar services at this level?

The biggest thing for us is the room itself, so that starts early on with architects and designers to make sure the footprint is correct, that the HVAC has not been overlooked, and we’re looking at very low noise-floors, which requires a lot of space to get the volume you want at a very low velocity. 

 

Treating the process as a whole instead of as individual bits and pieces is also unique. But that’s not anyone else’s fault. Just to take the AV guys, oftentimes they don’t come into a project until the shell is built, so there’s very little they can do to fix it or create a high-level room. At that point, it’s basically pick some gear, throw a little bit of acoustics on the wall, and call it a day.

Creating the structure (and concealing the speakers and other electronics) for
the legendary Paradiso theater (photo of completed theater by Randall Michelson) 

They may not have any authority at that point because there’s probably already an interior designer who’s taken over or the architect or whoever.

 

Our approach is different because we’re at the ground level, sitting down with architects before the plans are finished, going through the math and science of it in the very beginning. Nobody wants to talk about fluid dynamics and things like that, but when the room doesn’t function for its dedicated purpose, now you want to go back and talk about that. It’s kind of pennies on the dollar if you get in early enough to dig down dirt or whatever you need to to create the size, whereas once concrete’s poured it gets expensive to try to get the room to the correct size.

 

Has that changed over time? Do you now find yourself consistently getting in early enough or is there still a lot of regrouping that has to go on?

There’s still a lot of regrouping. When I first started, we probably got 90% of our projects from integrators, and now it’s probably 20%. We’ve done a good job of getting to architects and other designers early but we have a long way to go and we can’t do it alone. That’s why I want to bring awareness to the industry, so we can all work together. It benefits everybody. You end up with a far superior product. And it doesn’t have to be for that much bigger of a budget. It’s just planning and the sequence of events.

 

Now that high-end entertainment is spreading into more rooms and the demand to have entertainment-related infrastructure throughout the house is increasing, are you being called in earlier to talk about how entertainment relates to the entire home as opposed to that one dedicated room?

We are. The issue in the LA market is that there is a tremendous number of spec homes being built, and they’re just checking boxes of what the house needs to have—a cinema, a wine cellar, a sport court, or whatever—and then selling it. What’s happening is we’re then getting calls from the new owners to come back and make the house livable, because it’s all hard surfaces—glass and stone and tile—and everything is so reverberant and echoey, it’s just a nightmare.

 

And we’re seeing awareness of the quality of life in other rooms. Wellness is a big deal, and just by default we basically already build everything to wellness standards, as far as the noise level in the room, the air changes, using green materials, lighting—things like that.

 

People now look at even something like a big grand foyer in the house and all of a sudden they care about the acoustics, when it used to be you would walk in and it would just be this massive wall of marble or a staircase or whatever. Now we can

Installing acoustically transparent fabric
in the foyer of the Paradiso

incorporate acoustical plaster or different things that don’t change the aesthetic whatsoever but add tremendous value to the quality of life.

 

How aware are architects, developers, and clients of the level of experience that’s possible in an entertainment space?

There are very few who are that privy to what’s out there. If you look at cars, especially in LA, you’ll see Lamborghinis and Ferraris driving all over the place. So they buy what are basically race cars and they’re just going to get coffee or meet someone for lunch, right? Very few of those people have a racetrack in their backyard.

 

So that’s what we’re doing. You can have the theater to just impress your friends or you can really be a connoisseur and appreciate the immersive experience you can have. And we’ve seen it bring families closer together. We have a client that got married in their cinema. Especially now with videoconferencing, there are so many different ways the 

rooms can be used. People have band practice in there or whatever. So when you build it with the right foundation, the room can be used for so many different things.

 

There used to be a purist notion that home theaters could only be for movie watching, but the technology and construction have evolved to the point where they can now be multi-use spaces with few compromises. When you’re talking to a client, how do you educate them on what their options are?

It starts with the client questionnaire. Just by asking the right questions, you can find out what they know. Nobody wants to come across as uneducated, so you present it in a way to bring awareness of the options and the level that they can have. Most people think a commercial theater like an AMC or Dolby Cinema is the benchmark. They don’t realize we can blow that out of the water in their own home, no problem. 

 

But when you get into the private level of home cinema, you can really experience things the way the director intended. We have had directors sit in our rooms and say, “I didn’t even realize that was in the mix.” You can hear levels you can’t otherwise experience. So we want people to know that that’s possible. And it’s possible on a variety of different budgets and room sizes. You don’t have to put an IMAX in your house to have that experience. We can take a spare bedroom of your house and a make a three-seat cinema that just blows you away, and you’re completely immersed and lost for a few hours.

 

Are people skeptical when you tell them that?

More so at the beginning. One of the hardest things used to be convincing people to spend “X” amount of dollars behind drywall. The HVAC systems we design can be a couple hundred thousand dollars. Nobody wants to think about allocating that much budget to air. But if you want a good experience, it’s important not to feel fatigue, not to feel distracted—there are so many different elements that back up why we do what we do.

 

People are always skeptical, but we’ve found ways to relate it to them in real-world experiences and analogies. We can do virtual walk-throughs, so we can design the room and have them walk around and see it before we even think about building 

it. People convince themselves once they experience it.

 

Design-wise, what kinds of rooms do people tend to be looking for?

It’s geared less toward movie palaces and more toward the modern look at the moment—which is very difficult, because they want either just drapes or everything just hard surfaces, so finding that balance is tricky. A lot of people want rooms lighter now, which poses some imaging issues. You’ve got a big reflector in the front of the room, so if the 

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

room is too light and scenes change, it lights up the room. And that can really mess with the human psyche as to what you’re supposed to be seeing, triggering a fight-or-flight response that takes you out of the moment. You don’t have to have a black room, but those are some of the challenges we’re facing.

 

Is that a reaction to the man cave? They don’t want a room that looks like it’s a retreat but want something that’s more a part of the flow of the house instead.

I think so. As theaters have become a bigger focal point of the home and not just a man cave in the corner, they want it to be a little more beautiful, more for entertainment, an extension of the home. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, if you weren’t building a room that was extremely dark, you were messing up big-time. But now people realize it doesn’t have to be black. We still care about how bright the room is, but there are other things you can do. We can create sort of a chasm in the front that really lets you be immersed in the screen, and then we can kind of liven up the rest of the room. We can also have some fun with the rear wall and the ceiling and things like that. Things have progressed for sure.

 

People used to spend a fortune on a home theater but because only one family member knew how to operate it, the room often fell into disuse.

We have seen that scenario many times, and it’s usually because the interface is clumsy. We want our rooms to be the most used rooms in the house. We have clients that get their morning coffee and go sit in their cinema to watch the news. It’s not mainly about the cinema experience—it’s just the most comfortable room to be in and it obviously has a nice, large screen. But we can put all the work we want into it, if it’s not easy to use, it will not get used. As much money as you have, there’s nothing more embarrassing than not knowing how to turn something on. We can make sure the room performs well but if the client can’t turn it on, they’ll never know.

 

What else do you think people need to know about what you do and what needs to happen at this level in general?

Starting early is the biggest thing for sure, so what we actually end up building is specialized. The key thing is to get a good theater designer—and not just an interior designer. The aesthetics are important for sure, but if the room doesn’t perform to a high level, it’s a big wasted piece of real estate.

 

If I could just say one sentence to educate clients, architects, whoever, it would be to engage a theater designer. If we can design this from the beginning, you can basically have whatever you want. You’re doing it to get the shell, because while the electronics and technology are constantly evolving, and there’s always a new version of something, the math and science don’t change. You can change out the aesthetics or the AV equipment or whatever you want, but if you get the bones right, you’re going to be happy with that for the life of the house.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 19
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:38    How his company approaches a project,

           regardless of its budget or size

2:34    A description of Fantastic Theaters’ services

4:19    “We have to be the closest thing there is to

           a turnkey cinema solution”

6:06    The impact of his construction background

           on his company’s approach to entertainment

           spaces

6:21    His experiences working on the Paradiso

           theater

8:20    The importance of focusing on the room’s

           construction

10:25  The need for proper planning and being

            brought into a project as early as possible

11:30   Being asked to make spec homes livable

            because entertainment needs weren’t taken

            into consideration

12:21   The increasing awareness of the need for

            proper acoustics throughout the home

13:40   Making clients aware of the level of

            performance achievable by a home cinema

16:50   Getting clients to realize the impact of

            things like HVAC on their movie-watching

            experience

18:14   The problem with relying too much on

            digital room correction

19:17   Tuning a room’s acoustics for various

            entertainment uses

21:00   The increasing use of video walls in

            home cinemas

23:03   The importance of finding a good theater

            designer

24:20   The current preference for modern spaces

             over movie palaces for home cinemas

26:47   How to avoid having a theater fall into

            disuse because it’s difficult to operate

REVIEWS

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins
The 75-Inch Revolution
Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies
The Cineluxe Hour

The 75-Inch Revolution

The 75-Inch Revolution

I’m going to mention some things here that are probably pretty obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent the past couple of years wandering the Himalayas with their sherpa. But beyond those more commonplace facts lies a larger truth—that in just the past couple of years home entertainment has changed in ways that go well beyond even the unbridled crowing of the most rah-rah marketing hype.

 

No matter where you live, it’s impossible to ignore that the new entry level for TVs is 75 inches. Even if that screen size is way too big for many people’s homes, it’s still the size they hunger for. And sets like that have become readily affordable, making 42-inch sets seem as quaint as 19-inch screens seemed at the dawn of the HDTV era.

 

Here’s the more important point: Many of those models can provide reference-quality image reproduction, even toward the lower end of the price spectrum. This has never happened before. We are rapidly reaching a point where a good chunk of the 

An unprecedented number
of people now have video
displays that can beat the
previous gold standard of
the movie theater

American populace has sets that can create a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. And with relative ease. And for a relatively small investment.

 

But . . .

 

Just because somebody’s set is capable of that kind of performance doesn’t mean they have it set up to take 

advantage of that, or they even know their set can do that. And it doesn’t mean they have it placed properly in the room or even have it in an appropriate room—chances are, they don’t. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of their system is up to snuff—again, it’s probably not.

 

But one thing that’s more than likely true is that many of them also have at least one signal source that’s capable of besting their local movie theater. That has also never happened before. Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max are reaching the point where only trained viewers can perceive differences from reference-quality playback. And even that gap is closing rapidly.

 

So, an unprecedented number of people now have displays that can beat the increasingly irrelevant gold standard of the movie theater. And an unprecedented number now have access to content delivery that also exceeds that standard.

Again, that doesn’t mean they have their systems set up to take advantage of that, but the potential is there nonetheless.

 

So what does this all mean, and what does it portend?

 

First off, to take aim squarely at the gorilla in the room: Why the hell do we continue to think we need movie theaters? If 

Just because reference quality
has gone mass market
doesn’t mean there’s nothing
left for the luxury market
to call its own

your system can do it better, and you don’t have to drive there, and your investment in every evening of movie-watching doesn’t have to hover near $100 (at a minimum), and first-run content is showing up day & date on streaming, and you don’t have to watch ads if you don’t want to, and you can instantly switch to another film if your first choice sucks, and you’ve got the option of taking anybody who talks during the movie and locking them up in the basement, why would you think of theaters as anything other than the quaint, and mostly unpleasant, relics they are?

 

Second, things will inevitably get better from here. As more people become aware of what their systems can do, it can only lead to better viewing environments, better gear for those environments, and even better content being pumped into those environments. If there’s a downside to any of this, I’m not seeing it. (The whole “movies have to be a communal experience” argument is usually promulgated by Hollywood types who haven’t sullied themselves with The Great Unwashed in years, if ever.)

 

But just because reference quality has gone mass market doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the luxury market to call its own. The list is long, but just to tick off a few things: Video walls will remain hugely expensive for the foreseeable future, but represent all but unexplored territory in the home environment. It takes a custom-designed, -built, and -tuned room to consistently have a reference-quality experience. Nobody’s figured out how to commodify that, and chances are no one ever will. And good luck trying to integrate a full-blown Atmos system into a typical middle-American living room without having it look like a CIA black site.

 

You get the point. It’s great that better-than-movie-theater is becoming as common as Kleenex. But not all rooms or systems—or viewers—are created equal. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Only a handful of people have the creativity, taste, knowledge, and experience to create a luxury home entertainment space. This new series of podcasts and features offers a unique look at the artisans who represent the pinnacle of each profession that goes into crafting these ultimate systems and rooms.

 

We focus on the collaboration with the homeowner, and what it’s like to retain and work with the best in the field. There’s no shop talk here, no inside baseball, no speeds and feeds. This is the closest you can come to engaging with one of these experts without sitting down with them in your home.

 

It would have been wrong to begin the series with anyone other than Theo Kalomirakis, who not only created the whole idea of home theater but showed its promise through his best-selling coffeetable books and continues to create the most innovative, opulent, and stunning private theaters in the world.

—M.G.

(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast, which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Podcast listeners will find photos and graphics illustrating some of Theo’s examples by scrolling down the page.)

How do you typically approach designing a theater?

I usually get a project either directly from a client that read about us in a magazine or whatever or from an audio/video integrator. Getting it from the client is usually the most satisfying because either they’ve done their homework or they realize we are the ones that do it professionally. And they’re usually more amenable to do it the way I suggest we do it.

 

But even if the job comes from a custom installer, I like to have direct feedback from the client. You need to have that kind of access, otherwise you design in absentia. You don’t know what they want. You have to be able to interview them.

 

The first meeting with the client

The first meeting starts with sitting down with them and communicating my enthusiasm for the space, and with helping them to feel that I’m not selling them something. I’m just bringing them into my world, because I’m immersed in home theater architecture and I want them to be part of my excitement about it. I want to be able to communicate my ideas to them and make them relax so they can listen to me. I usually start the design process after I feel like I’ve connected with the client, after

he and I are on the same page.

 

Integrating the theater design into the rest of the house

Once our visions align, I start the work. Early in my career, the client would say, “Hey, I want an Art Deco theater because I’ve seen your theaters, and I like that style—it’s cinematic.” And I would usually say, “Yes, I love that style too. Let’s do an Art Deco theater.” But after I saw Deco theaters happening in very traditional environments, I started to feel embarrassed. It’s like when you go to Epcot Center and you go into the French pavilion or the Spanish pavilion—it had that kind of phoniness.

 

So I started putting my foot down, in a gentle way. I directed the client’s attention to the fact that the theater should echo the identity of the rest of the house—but without imitating it. You don’t want the theater to look like a living room or a dining room or whatever. You want it to look like a theater—but within the same language.

 

Earning the client’s trust

One of the key elements of bonding with the client is getting them to trust me so that if I have to steer them someplace other than what they think they want, they realize it’s not because I’m trying to play the prima donna but because I have their best interest in mind. I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to give you a theater where some of your guests will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but the more sophisticated guests will say, ‘What the hell is this theater doing in this house?’” I always seek approval—not only from the client but from the guests who might be more sophisticated than the client. I protect my ass from being accused of being a gimmicky guy.

 

Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

You have to know who the clients are as people. The first step is to learn what their tastes are. The next step is to make sure you guide them to things they may not have thought of. They may know what they like, and what they like may be perfectly legitimate, and you go with it. But if I sense that I can guide them to something they might

like just as much, I protect my integrity by also protecting the client from something that would be a liability.

 

The woman who wanted “gaudy”

I was doing a theater for a well-known baseball player, and I met with his wife somewhere in Georgia. The lady came in made up in a way that made Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup look demure—huge eyelashes, painted lips, big bouffant hairdo. She was a caricature of a nouveau riche wife.

 

So I interviewed her to find out what exactly she liked, and it turned out she wanted something very, very ornate—all the kind of stuff ladies of the South associate with an expression that they’ve made it, they’ve arrived. “I want the theater with a lot of gold,” she said. “A lot of gold.” I took a step back because I was surprised and said, “You mean you want an opulent theater.” She said, “No, honey. I want it gaudy!”

 

Good for her. She knew what she was looking for. You can’t fight that kind of person. You can’t persuade someone with a gaudy house to do something more understated. You listen to them, and 90% of the time they make sense.

 

The client who wanted the Acropolis

There were two or three times when I really hit a wall and didn’t know what to do, like at another house in Jupiter Island. It was fairly traditional—not particularly gaudy—with a typical Floridian richness.

 

When I saw the space for the theater, I asked the wife, “Do you have a particular style you want?” “Yes!” she said. “We want the Acropolis!” I almost swallowed my tongue. I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “You know—like the Versillis.” She didn’t even know how to say “Versailles.” Now, what the Acropolis had to do with Versailles, your guess is as good as mine. I decided there was no way I could do anything there, that I would be responsible by association.

 

How do you translate the client’s idea into a theater?

I usually crank up the volume. They come with some kind of concept that’s in the right direction but it’s not full-fledged. My role is to start from their concept and improve it, enhance it, and make it more exciting.

 

The importance of a proper theater environment

If I react negatively to a client, it’s usually because they say they want a comfortable seating layout. “We don’t want anything structured—we want a sofa here and an armchair there, an ottoman there.” I try to be very restrained in my response because it’s their choice—that’s how they watch movies. I make an effort to educate them that if they do that, they’re getting a living room in the guise of a theater. You have all the accoutrements of a theater but it’s literally a living room.

Theo originally designed the space above to accommodate traditional theater seating but
modified the design to honor the client’s preference for living-room-like seating arrangements

The classic example of that was the house in Vegas [shown above], where I couldn’t persuade them to do something that was more theatrical. That was a very well-defined theater that focused on the screen, the stage, and everything, but the wife put sofas in it like in a living room.

 

This is a typical contradiction I have with the client. They want a theater but they also want comfortable seating. I’ll tell them, “By doing that, you have one foot in your living room and the other foot in my theater language.” I can’t reconcile the two.

 

My clients usually have a living room and a media room, so I try to tell them, “We can do that in the media room, where it makes sense. But let the theater be a theater, with comfy seats spread apart with big arm rests, and you can kick up your legs because of the recliner. You still have the comfort of a living room.” 

 

When I go down to my theater and I recline, it’s ideal. You see the movie. You have good sight lines. You don’t lose that luxury of a theater, where you’re meant to be able to watch a movie with people in front of you and behind you. You shouldn’t be facing each other in a position that’s meant for chit-chatting, not for watching a movie. 

 

Casual seating is meant to accommodate unruly owners who want to talk to each other while the movie’s playing. When someone comes into my theater and starts talking, I stop them, as polite as I can. “Don’t talk. Let’s watch a movie.” So when my clients want something casual, I try to persuade them to do theater seating. Do I always win? 90% of the time.

 

Have you seen a big shift from movie palaces to more contemporary designs?

There are people who want to have the movie experience without reference to the grandeur of the old movie palaces. Figuring out how to create that same kind of excitement in a room that is expressed using contemporary architecture has 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

been my Holy Grail. It’s very difficult because our minds are filled with images of ornate palaces with chandeliers and everything, which creates the ambience of wanting to see a movie. Creating that ambience using a more contemporary language is very difficult because it’s, by its nature, more stripped down.

 

But I’ve found out that you can achieve that mostly through lighting, which creates that excitement. 

Just add lighting to a room—not sconces on the wall but strip lighting or columns with backlighting—and it brings the architecture to the level of a theater.

 

Who assembles & supervises the team to create one of your theaters?

For the big projects, I usually bring the people, like acoustic designers and lighting designers—not interior designers because I usually do that myself. It’s like making a movie—you get specialists to do the various tasks. You get a crew that works together synergistically to divide the elements of the theater into their various expertises.

 

For lighting, I usually work with Howard Werner, who is a lighting designer on Broadway. He did Spider-man with Julie Taymor. For acoustics, I’ve worked very extensively with Steve Haas because he knows my ways. And he’s compromising in the same way that I’m compromising, to accommodate the acoustics. When you work with experts like that, you have to respect each other’s trades.

 

How do you accommodate the client’s or integrator’s equipment requirements?

If the job comes from an audio/video integrator, I ask immediately to get the list of equipment and the placement of the speakers. I design around what they want and where they’re going to  position the speakers on the wall. I totally respect the science of someone who has to put the speaker in exactly the right location to the left or the right of the subwoofer. So I’m very accommodating.

 

What happens when the equipment gets in the way of the design?

Sometimes you have to go back to the integrator and say, “That wasn’t what I proposed”—like a recent project in Texas. The manufacturer put the subwoofers all the way to the floor but I specified a 6-inch baseboard there. I said, “Come on, guys. Lift the woofer off the floor 6 inches. Will that create havoc? Is it going to ruin the room acoustics? I gave you a room that’s 90% transparent to put the speakers wherever you want.” The whole room is stretched fabric, so they could put the speakers pretty much anywhere, but I wanted a baseboard so people wouldn’t kick the fabric, or especially the subwoofer, when they went down down the steps.

 

Does the screen choice sometimes compromise your design?

It’s usually easy to get a client to go with the right screen. If it’s a low-ceiling room, I tell them to avoid using a 16:9 screen because it will need to go all the way to floor, so you won’t be able to see the bottom of the image from some of the seats. I tell them to use a wide screen because it will fill the room width-wise but it doesn’t need to go all the way down.

 

If they get a wide screen, they can watch epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia without bars at the top and bottom, and they’ll be able to move the image inside the screen if they want to watch 16:9 content. If they say, “We don’t watch movies—we watch sports,” then they’re meant for a 16:9 screen. But if I have my way, I push for the wide screen because you get a bigger screen in a smaller space.

 

Have you seen video walls being used more frequently in home theaters?

Not yet because they’re very expensive, around $300,000 to $400,000. But a nicely calibrated set will give you the same performance as a projector—and probably an advantage, because you’re going to produce a brighter picture. When I watch 

3D movies in my theater, they suffer. Even though I have a bright projector, the level goes down. You don’t have that problem with a display.

 

You like to create a sense of anticipation before people enter one of your theaters. Have clients ever objected to that?

Nobody has rejected that because I usually remind them of what it’s like to go to a movie theater. When you go there, you don’t expect to open the door from the sidewalk and find yourself in the middle of the theater. Why? Because going to a movie is like riding a submarine. As you go up in the water, you have to go through various compartments of decompression before you get to the very top.

 

So you need to go from a small space to a larger space to an even larger space—and I usually bring up the example of the Roxy Theater in New York. The Roxy had an incredible corridor with movie posters right on 50th St. and 7th Ave. that was like 10 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Theo’s design for the Ritz Theater in Texas takes visitors down a long hallway and through a series of lobbies before they arrive at the theater proper, which is placed right next to where they first entered

feet high. From that you would get to the ticket lobby, which was grander—like 15 feet high. Once you were past that, you went down into a tunnel that was 8 feet or 9 feet high that led to the grand rotunda, which zoomed up to 70 feet.

 

It’s like an orchestral piece. You orchestrate the crescendos and the pianissimos to create variation and a sense of anticipation and a sense of excitement for when something big happens. You can’t have a symphony that starts with a big crescendo and just stays there.

 

I explain to the client that, even if they have the smallest space in the world, they should let me subdivide it. I’m not taking away from the space—I’m giving them a more nuanced approach to the theater. I haven’t met anybody who’s said “No,” unless they just don’t have the space.

 

I did a theater called The Ritz in Texas [shown above]. It’s in my book Great Escapes [page 136]. The client gave me the attic, which was a big space—2,000 square feet—and he said, “How many seats can we fit in here? I have a big space and a big 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomiraks

Max Fleischer’s 1934 cartoon tour of the ultimate movie palace

family.”  I said, “Wrong question. It’s not how many seats. It’s how do you create a home theater environment?”

 

So I created a layout that was like a maze that was opening up. The theater ended up right next to the left of the entry, but you had to go all the way to the back and snake around and go through inner lobbies—a big lobby and a grand foyer—and then a smoking room, and then two corridors. And finally, breathlessly, you arrived at the theater.

It’s just like what Disney does with the theme rides where they have you waiting in line for two hours and you watch different things on TV or you go from one room to another before you get onto the ride. They prepare you. That is not done to showcase the architecture of the various rooms; it’s to create a sense of anticipation, which is what I do by capturing the grandeur of arriving at the Roxy in a simple theater—which is what that Max Fleischer cartoon accomplishes so well.

 

Working with the client’s interior designer

I usually don’t talk to the client while I’m working with the architect and contractor. But when the construction is underway, I meet with them to select things. That’s a very important part of the job because usually there’s a designer in attendance, and they don’t want the theater to be too far away from what they’re doing in the rest of the house. I tell them not to use bright colors in the theater, and that they can’t use a carpet design that jumps out of the floor because it makes the seats prominent.

 

Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

The seats are probably the most damaging element in a theater because they’re large. Everything else I do is kind of miniaturized to create a sense of scale, so the wrong seats can throw my work out of proportion. The most typical example 

of that is the theater I did that was a recreation of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. But when you see the seats, which are as big as the buildings, you say right away, “That’s fake.” Your sense of disbelief is eliminated and you suddenly see the artifact, that it’s all miniatures to create an effect.

 

I was watching the Netflix documentary Martin Scorsese did with Fran Leibowitz, and there’s a scene where she sits in

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

the miniature of Manhattan that’s in Queens. And then she steps into the set, and her shoes are as high as some of the shorter buildings. She becomes like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

 

How does your approach differ from other theater designers?

I don’t really know because I haven’t really worked with them. All I know—and this is a very generic observation—is theater designers with a technical background tend to start from the technology. And that is Sam Cavitt, and that’s Keith Yates. They’re very protective of technology, and they should be. Traditional designers are the opposite. They start with the interior design, and they tend to be technology adverse. I see myself as sitting in the middle, between acoustical or technical designers and those who decorate. If I were to put a label on my principal contribution to home theater design, it’s that I became a bridge between technology and design by respecting both.

 

How did you learn to balance technology & design?

When technical or acoustic designers like Steve Haas began to get involved, I had to start listening to them. I didn’t want to because I wanted to decorate, but slowly I realized it’s not just decoration. They would pressure me—“We can’t put that speaker too far behind the seats. We want it here.” So you have to work with the integrator, or with clients who are sound-savvy.

 

And I learned to pay attention to materials. You can’t make a theater using all wood. It looks fantastic, but wood is very reflective. So I learned to use materials that aren’t reflective—not only in terms of material but of color. If you have a white surface, it reflects too much color off the screen and makes you aware you’re in the room. You want the room to disappear.

 

The extreme case of wanting the room to disappear is [video-calibration expert] Joe Kane. He doesn’t want to have anything other than a black room, which is going to the one extreme. Having a room that’s very bright and colorful would be the other. There’s got to be a middle ground, where the room can look attractive when the lights are on but disappears when you watch a movie, like in my theater downstairs.

 

I can change the color of the walls to give the room a different personality because I have LEDs, but when the movie begins, the room disappears. So, everything can be done if you know the tricks of the trade, and I developed them by making mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 17
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:32   How do you typically approach designing a

          theater?

1:55   The first meeting with the client

3:00   Integrating the theater design into the rest of

          the house

4:42   Earning the client’s trust

6:00   Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

6:57   The woman who wanted “gaudy”

8:39   The client who wanted the Acropolis

10:20  How do you translate the client’s idea into

           a theater?

10:58  The importance of a proper theater

           environment

15:12  Have you seen a shift from movie palaces to

           more contemporary designs?

16:53  Who assembles & supervises the team to

           create one of your theaters?

19:33  How do you accommodate the client’s or

           integrator’s equipment requirements?

20:51  What happens when the equipment gets

           in the way of the design?

21:20  Does the screen choice sometimes

           compromise your design?

23:23  Have you seen video walls being used more

           frequently in home theaters?

24:42  You like to create a sense of anticipation

           before people enter one of your theaters.

           Have clients ever objected to that?

30:14  Working with the client’s interior designer

30:51  Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

33:04  How does your approach differ from other

           theater designers?

34:51  How did you learn to balance technology &

           design?

REVIEWS

Nashville (1975)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Nomadland (2020)
Gattaca (1997)
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Long Goodbye (1973)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die
Oscar-Nominated Films 2021
John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
The Cineluxe Hour

Ep. 15: Theo at Home

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Legendary home theater designer (and Cineluxe contributor) Theo Kalomirakis went back to Greece last year to supervise work on his summer home only to find himself locked down in the country, thanks to the pandemic. He quickly realized his confinement was a blessing in disguise since it allowed him to enjoy the cuisine, walking on the nearby beach, his work-in-progress home—and the attention of the Athenians, who have embraced him as a long-lost son.

 

Theo decided to have his personal home theater transported from the U.S. and reconstructed in the basement of his new home, where he implemented a number of upgrades (which we discuss in the episode).

He was also able to realize a childhood dream. Greece is famous for its outdoor theaters, and, wanting to emulate those, Theo as a teenager built his first home theater out on the terrace of his parents’ apartment in Athens. Never able to find a way to do something similar at his Brooklyn home, he seized on the chance to take advantage of the 10,000 square feet of property surrounding his summer home to create the ultimate outdoor movie space.

Our conversation covers the circumstances that brought Theo to Greece and the creation of his new personal theaters along with a slew of other subjects, including his latest work and his love for movies. Here’s a road map:

 

0:00    How the pandemic brought him back to Greece.

5:06    How he planned his new home theater.

5:49    How his new yard became an outdoor theater.

7:14    The status of his archives, which document the history of home theater.

8:18    How he’s been embraced by the Greek film community.

8:26    Donating his collection of 5,000 laserdiscs.

10:13  Donating his collection of 6,000 Blu-ray Discs.

11:40  The Greek passion for movies.

13:30  The effort to finish his home theater.

13:53  The improvements over his Brooklyn theater.

16:06  Theo’s preference for a clean, modern design style vs. the “movie palace” approach.

19:16  How his outdoor theater was inspired by Greek theaters & his first home theater.

22:45  A description of the outdoor theater.

25:17  His efforts to archive his collection of Blu-ray Discs and 9,000 DVDs.

27:35  The impressive recent re-issues of Technicolor movies.

30:49  What 4K brings to re-issues.

31:42  Technicolor vs. contemporary films (The Harvey Girls vs. Tenet).

33:10  Wrap-up / tweaking his home theater.

RELATED POSTS

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

From Customer to CEO: A Conversation with Kaleidescape’s Tayloe Stansbury

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

I first had the opportunity to speak with Tayloe Stansbury last November, just days after his appointment as Kaleidescape’s new CEO had been announced. He took an interesting journey to becoming the CEO, going from being a customer to joining the board in August 2020 and then being named head of the company. During that earlier conversation, it was clear Tayloe shared our passion for movies and home theater, so we jumped at the chance to talk to him again to discuss home theater, trends in the industry, and his plans for driving Kaleidescape forward.

—John Sciacca

Could you tell me what got you into home theater and a little bit about your primary viewing system?

Sure. I got into it about 20 years ago when I got a projector. It was one of those “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” moments—the projector then turned into a whole bunch of other equipment.

 

Somewhere along the line my dealer got me interested in Kaleidescape. My first reaction was, “Yeah, so what’s wrong with Apple TV?” This was about 10 years ago. But he convinced me, and I bought a small system—an M500 movie player and a 1U server—and we loved it, just because of the convenience and not having to sit through all the FBI warnings and extraneous previews and so forth that DVDs used to force on you.

 

From there, the system has grown. We swapped out our Madrigal, Revel, and Proceed equipment for mostly Meridian equipment. The projector is now a SIM2. It’s about 10 years old but it’s just an awesome 5,000-lumen device. It’s still gorgeous and it’s still powered with a Kaleidescape M500. So we now have a Storm processor, Meridian speakers, SIM2 projector, and three 1Us serving up a whole bunch of content. We also have Stratos and Terras in some of our other systems as well.

 

What kind of insights did being a longtime Kaleidescape customer allow you to bring to your new role as CEO?

In any company, it’s best to think of the customer first because that’s who you’re serving and that’s who you’re building your 

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

products for. Coming into this as a longtime customer means I have a very clear outside-in perspective that’s enabled me to think about a number of problems a little bit differently.

 

One thing I know from having been a customer is that people don’t like having to buy the same content twice. You buy a movie at one resolution, and then you have to pay for it all over again when it’s offered in a higher resolution. Or 

you already bought the content on disc and loaded it onto a Premiere system, but now you want to get a Strato and Terra system but don’t want to have to repurchase a lot of the same content.

 

So one of the changes we’ve made is to offer format upgrades at a much lower price. And for people coming from a disc-based world, we’re offering disc-to-digital transition pricing for when you’re doing a Strato add-on to a Premiere system so you don’t feel like you have to buy your content from scratch all over again.

 

Spec’ing a Kaleidescape into a big six-figure system is a no-brainer, but how do you make the case for including one in a mid-to-low five-figure system where people tend to want to go with a Roku or an Apple TV?

Great question. First, not everybody who buys a high-end system gets a Kaleidescape. It’s crazy to think that someone’s spending $100,000 on a theater and then feeding it with a relatively low-bit-rate source device. When you’re playing a 4K HDR movie on a Kaleidescape compared to playing a 4K movie on a streaming device, you’re getting about four times the video bit-rate and about 10 times the audio bit-rate. It’s a pretty profound difference.

 

You might watch the streamer and say, “Wow, that actually looks and sounds pretty good.” But then play the same scenes again on a Kaleidescape and you’ll really see and hear the difference.

 

It’s just as important to build a balanced system whether it’s for a secondary viewing area or a dedicated theater room. It doesn’t make sense to have any weak links in the chain, especially with the source that’s feeding all your movie content. By overspending on the latter parts of the chain, like the video display, speakers, and amplification, and underspending on the

first part, which is the source component, you’re getting garbage in, which just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

 

As you transition to lower-priced systems, there does come a point where the advantage and richness of a high-end source starts to become 

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

overkill. But it actually happens at a much lower price point than one might think. Even a $25,000 theater or media room is going to be better served by having a Strato in it than by spending that same amount of money on better speakers or amplification. Having that clarity at the source driving what might be slightly less-expensive things downstream actually gives you a better balanced system overall.

 

And once you have a server, the cost of adding a player is only about three grand at current pricing. At that price, you’ve got to say, well, why wouldn’t you put one with every TV in your house, if it’s a 4K display and has a decent sound system associated with it?

 

Where are you seeing more pushback on the lower-end sales, from integrators or from customers?

It’s an awareness problem across the board, with people not understanding the difference it can make in the overall experience. For customers, it’s being aware of the importance of a premium content source to power their system. I think integrators get that, but may not be aware that Kaleidescape also offers integration options like being able to automate the room lighting and curtains, because the movies can cue the correct aspect ratio, they can lower lights and close curtains as the movie begins and can start raising the lights as the credits are rolling.

 

Theater closures due to the pandemic have upended traditional movie distribution. What impact has all this had on Kaleidescape?

Certainly there has been limited or no ability to go to theaters for a while, which is driving people who want to see movies to watch them at home. Twenty years ago, the possibility of having a home experience that would approach the theater experience wasn’t even there. But today, it absolutely is. So the content you’re getting from a Kaleidescape system is coming at a video and audio resolution that’s equivalent to what you’d be getting in a theater. And the sound systems you can get for the home have become much more affordable—and that’s now the more expensive part of the system. The ability to have an

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

absolutely cinematic experience at home without having to sit on somebody else’s popcorn is pretty amazing now.

 

Kaleidescape grew last year as a result of a lot of people watching more movies at home. We’ll have to see when theaters fully reopen whether people flock back to them or if this has put a permanent dent in their behavior.

One of the other changes is the ability to watch a movie when it comes out, as opposed to waiting for it to show up on video distribution. And we now have a rental feature that includes Premium Video on Demand (PVOD), so certain content can be released the same day it appears in theaters.

 

How did the rental option come about and what does it mean for system owners?

We thought it was important to offer this to our customer base because there are times when you’re like, “Do I really want to buy this movie?” Now you can just go ahead and rent it, and if it turns out you love it, we’ll credit half your rental price to the purchase. And of course then you don’t have to download it again. The rental is downloaded exactly the same as before—it’s the exact same bits you get when you buy a movie, so there’s no penalty in quality.

 

We’ll see how this plays out and if it changes people’s behavior. It might enable us to go to a new class of buyer because a lot of people don’t consider themselves movie collectors; they just like to watch movies. But they don’t typically watch them more than once, or it’s once in a long while that they’ll watch a classic again, like a Star Wars.

 

I think there’s been a misconception that probably goes all the way back to the beginning of Kaleidescape that it’s really a product for people who want to be able to organize their disc collections and make them instantly available, that this is a product for collectors as opposed to cinephiles, who just love to watch movies. This new service makes it clear you don’t have to own a single title.

 

They say the first 100 days in office are some of the most important, and by my reckoning you’re coming up on that number.

Pretty close.

 

How far have you gotten with your wish list and where do you see things going over the next year or so?

Coming with the perspective of a long-time customer really helps bring more outside-in thinking into the company. So that 

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

was the big pivot I wanted to make. The examples I gave earlier were a result of thinking about things from the customer’s perspective.

 

That was the big mission I had, and it’s still ongoing. We have a large 

installed base, with many of them running older systems. We’d love to get them upgraded to Strato and Terra systems. So we’re putting together some programs to facilitate that.

 

It seems like there are three groups you’d want to talk to: The integrators who sell and service your product, current customers, and potential customers. What message would you have for each of those groups?

Since many of the dealers and integrators have a dated view of the company, it’s important to get the word out that we’ve got new changes coming, new policies coming, so it’s a different thing than when they checked in on us some years ago. Getting that message about vibrancy to dealers is super important.

 

With existing customers, we need to convey that we want to take care of them, we want to get the movies they might have in lower resolution upgraded to the highest res they can run on their system without price being a barrier. When they start running short of disc space, we want to make sure we notify them of the options they have for upgrading for more space.

 

For prospective customers who may not have heard of Kaleidescape, we want to get the word out through increased marketing testimonials and the like that this really does give you a better home cinema experience than you can get through any other source.

 

What trends do you see driving the luxury home entertainment market, and where does Kaleidescape fit into all that?

Watching movies at home has obviously grown in the last year. I don’t think theaters are dead, but if you can have a similar or better experience at home, a lot of people are going to be drawn to that. And that, of course, is the space we play into. And within that space, what we play to is the high end—people who care about excellence in their home viewing and listening experience. But we offer that at a price point that is reasonably affordable, even for systems that aren’t huge and aren’t intended for a dedicated theater room.

 

If all you’re going to do is end up with a cheap TV and no additional speakers, you may not want a Kaleidescape, but if you really care about what you’re watching, you probably do want one. So there are systems for streamers, and then there are systems for Kaleidescape.

 

There are basically two kinds of people: Those who have Kaleidescape and those who don’t but want it.

The problem is there are actually three categories. The third is the people who don’t know about it yet.

 

That’s true.

And we want to get it down to those first two categories—those who have it and love it, and this who don’t have it and want it. If we can do that, we’ll be in great shape.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

LED light panels and a PTZ camera concealed behind side panels and a NUC mini-computer
hidden 
beneath the screen allow the Minema home theater to be transformed into a state-of-the-art
video- and teleconferencing space

As a supplement to the “Inside the Minema” podcast episode, I thought it might be helpful to share some details of the conferencing system configuration in my home cinema (dubbed the “Minema” for Mini+Cinema), together with some lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully this will be a useful reference for Cineluxe readers who may have similar objectives for making the most of their entertainment spaces, particularly given the increased demand for conferencing capabilities in the home as a result of the pandemic. There are no doubt other ways of achieving the same objectives, but I hope this overview can help inform discussions clients will have with their integrators about their own installations.

 

DESIGN APPROACH

One of the things I like about the overall design for the Minema is that none of the conference-room functionality is visible when you walk into the room. The conferencing equipment (e.g., the camera, mini-PC, and microphone) is either stored inside purpose-built cabinetry on the screen wall or mounted on the ceiling behind acoustically transparent fabric. LED lighting for videoconferencing is also hidden behind hinged doors on both sides of the screen. Other conference-room features, such as connectivity for laptops (projector display, ethernet, power), are built into small discreet cabinets tucked behind the seating armrests.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

click on the image to enlarge

VIDEO- AND TELECONFERENCING SYSTEM

The schematic above depicts the core elements of my videoconferencing and teleconferencing system. Here are some of the key design decisions reflected in the final layout:

 

Camera Location

In order to avoid problematic camera angles from above or below the screen, the camera is positioned in cabinetry to the right of the screen to get it more in line with the face height of anyone sitting in the theater seats. It is installed on a small custom-built shelf with an articulating arm so it can be stowed away when not in use. I use my Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor to shrink the projected video image onto the bottom right corner of the screen to make it easier for meeting

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

participants to look in the camera’s direction while watching the conferencing image on the screen. The Logitech Rally PTZ (pan/tilt/ zoom) camera is easy to control and the resolution is excellent even when zooming in on the faces of meeting participants in the center seats.

 

Use of Ceiling Microphone

The Shure MXA910 ceiling-array microphone (shown at left) came highly recommended by several conference-room integrators. I’ve found that it picks up everyone’s voices well regardless of where

they’re sitting, but by definition any ceiling microphone will struggle to compete with the quality of a headset microphone or other microphones that can be placed closer to someone when they’re speaking. The ceiling microphone is great for its wide coverage and its invisibility, so this was a compromise I was willing to make. 

 

One unintended benefit from an early design decision to use Wisdom line-source speakers for all seven horizontal channels in the Minema is that I have very little acoustic treatment in the ceiling. This left plenty of room in the area above the seats for the microphone (which is surprisingly large) and a WiFi access point. 

 

Location of Mini-PC (for videoconferencing codecs)

Although my conference-room integrator initially proposed putting an Intel NUC in the equipment rack, we ended up moving it to the screen wall to make for a much shorter cable run to the 4K camera, which requires a USB 3.1 connection. 

I primarily use the NUC with Zoom Rooms Conference Room software to host my meetings, which has the advantage that I can use the companion Zoom Rooms controller iOS app on the iPad Mini I use as the main Crestron controller for the theater. If I need to join a meeting hosted on another conferencing platform, it’s simple to exit the Zoom Rooms software on the NUC to do so.

 

The NUC is getting a lot of use beyond just conferencing since my personal computers are MacBooks and I need a Windows device to connect to some critical AV equipment (Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor, Biamp TesiraForté conferencing DSP, etc.). I’ve also found it very

handy to have a computer permanently connected to my theater AV system because so much movie and performing-arts content has migrated to the internet since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

Adding Teleconferencing

The Biamp TesiraForté DSP comes standard with VoIP and analog telephony ports, which made it possible to add a telephone line to my conferencing system. I now often use the Minema effectively as a giant speakerphone. 

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

1) It may not be easy to find integrators with conference-room expertise who are willing to work on a residential project

In 2019, when I was in the design phase for my installation, I found it extremely difficult to hire an integrator with conferencing expertise for a residential project. Hopefully the situation is different today since there are so many more people working from home, but the only way I was able to get a commercial integrator to agree to help me was by tapping some former work contacts. Once the commercial integrator came on board, they collaborated closely with my AV integrator to add the conferencing piece into the overall theater AV system.

 

These are the key capabilities the commercial integrator brought to the table:

 

Specifying the conferencing equipment (audio DSP, camera, microphone, mini-PC)

Providing guidelines for conference-room acoustic performance (easy to surpass with the original theater design specs) and lighting levels

Developing a signal-flow diagram for the conferencing system

Programming the audio DSP

“Tuning” the beamforming ceiling microphone

 

2) Typical commercial conference-room equipment specs may not work in a home theater setting

It didn’t take long after installing the conferencing system for me to realize I would need to swap out the NUC that was originally specified. Since the NUC is always on, I could hear its fan noise in the background when I was watching a movie or listening to music. Replacing it with a fanless model that is completely 

silent solved that problem. I also needed to tweak the NUC BIOS settings to turn off the front LED, which was visible through the fabric covers on the screen-wall cabinetry.

 

When I opened the box containing the Shure ceiling microphone, I realized I had another problem because it was bright white, not optimal for mounting behind black acoustically transparent ceiling fabric. Fortunately, Shure makes the same microphone in black, so that was an easy fix. 

 

One minor change that made a big difference was swapping out the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that were originally provided for a Logitech K830 illuminated living-room keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Using a mouse is simple when you’re sitting at a conference-room table but not so easy from theater seating. 

 

3) A commercial conferencing DSP may not be certified by some popular VoIP service providers

Although I am currently using the Biamp DSP with a Zoom Phone license, this has been challenging to set up since the Biamp isn’t a Zoom Phone-certified device. Biamp has certifications from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, Mitel, and Skype for Business. I can use my Zoom Phone license seamlessly with the Zoom Rooms software, but since this would restrict me to using the VoIP line only when the NUC is selected as my video source, this isn’t an optimal solution either. Using the Biamp with an analog phone line may in some cases therefore be the simplest option for adding teleconferencing. 

 

CONCLUSION

I was very fortunate that my project was completed in February 2020, immediately before the lockdown. When I was in the planning stages, I couldn’t have anticipated how much we would use the conferencing functionality in the Minema. Now I can’t imagine living without it.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

Ep. 11: Inside The Minema with Sam Cavitt & William Erb

The Cineluxe Hour logo

This episode is the first chance we’ve had on The Cineluxe Hour to really dive deep into the creation of a luxury home theater. And the room explored here is a trailblazing effort that goes beyond being able to produce a better-than-movie-theater experience at home to include state-of-the-art video- and teleconferencing—a need that has come to the forefront as the pandemic has caused more and more people to work from home.

 

Since this theater, dubbed the Minema (for “mini cinema”), was essentially a collaboration between designer Sam Cavitt and his client, William Erb, we interviewed both William and Sam about the process that led to its creation.

 

Sam Cavitt (a frequent contributor to the site who we’ve featured in Cineluxe Trendsetters) is known for designing—and spreading the gospel about—no-compromise home entertainment spaces, which he prefers to call private cinemas.

 

William Erb isn’t a typical client. His enthusiasm for high-quality video and audio caused him to get deeply involved in the planning, building, and tweaking of the Minema. The mandate to create a high-end movie-watching and music-listening space that could also accommodate conferencing was difficult enough, but Sam and Willam had to make it all work within the constraints of a high-end LA condo.

 

Here’s an overview of the episode:

 

1:18  Sam talks about how a designer is different from an integrator, and how only a small group of people do what he does.

4:04  Sam discusses the kinds of clients he usually works with, and what makes someone a Cinema Connoisseur.

5:27  Sam introduces Willam, who talks about how he found Sam and brought together the team that created his theater.

10:34  What Sam and his company bring to a project like the Minema.

13:10  How Sam collaborates with integrators.

15:32  William describes his approach to finding the trades to create a theater.

18:01  William gives his objectives for the Minema.

20:12  The emergence of multi-use luxury theaters.

23:14  The problems of doing sound isolation in a condo.

29:00  William talks about how the theater was developed for more than just movie watching and what his expectations were for videoconferencing.

32:45  How to create a space where none of the functions are compromised.

37:19  The recent surge in demand for luxury home cinemas—and for making them more flexible.

42:10  William’s future expectations for his theater.

44:09  Sam on appreciating a private cinema as a luxury item.

46:29  William on how video- and teleconferencing is a great opportunity for integrators.

47:36  William on how beginning the planning of a theater by giving the integrator a budget number can actually hurt a client’s chances of getting what they’re looking for.

50:09  Sam talks about the importance of thinking of a private cinema as an experience and a luxury acquisition instead of just some room for watching movies.

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Sam Cavitt is the founder & CEO of Paradise Theater. His firm has collaborated with leading integrators, architects, designers & builders on nearly a thousand of the world’s finest private cinemas, employing an exclusive process that assures excellence always. Sam is also spearheading Cinema Connoisseur, an initiative to create a community of enthusiasts—cinema connoisseurs—both professional and public to embrace and enhance the world of private cinema and film. He likes to spend his spare time in Maui surfing, sailing, paddling & drumming.

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music. 

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Movie Theater is Dead–Long Live the Movie Theater

The Movie Theater is Dead

I realize that’s a really obvious—even dopey—title, but how many chances do you get in a lifetime to write something like that and actually have it be true?

 

There’s been such a delicious, grisly irony to events as of late that it all has a premeditated, End Times kind of feel.

 

The most over-hyped director in Hollywood irresponsibly insists on having his film released in theaters—and it becomes possibly the biggest tentpole turkey of all time, causing the movie theaters, operating at a loss, to go sour on the other new 

films waiting in the wings. In fact, Tenet tanked so badly that Warner Bros. finally blinked and opted to not send The Witches to theaters but straight to HBO Max instead.

 

Then, when MGM decided to hold the release of the next installment of the seemingly interminable Bond series for another six months, the owners of the Regal chain, sensing that the latest Wonder Woman dumbshow likely won’t be enough to sustain them until then—assuming it even makes it to theaters—decided it’s time to close their doors, maybe forever.

 

Like it was all that hard to see any of this coming. And like it wouldn’t have been a lot more responsible—and possibly profitable—for the studios to have sent their theatrical slates straight to the home market—like, to the place where people are actually watching movies instead of to the place where they wished they were watching them. (Disney made that work, big time, with Mulan—but why would they want to listen to Disney?)

 

You have to feel bad for any lower-echelon people who might be losing their jobs because of all this, but civilization did just fine in the wake of the arrival of the automated loom, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different. But you can’t feel bad for the owners of the theater chains. They had all done a lousy job for decades of making their properties suitable for actually watching movies. And when they finally woke up to the threat posed by radically improved home viewing, it was way, way, way too late. All the pandemic has done is accelerate the inevitable.

 

But I don’t want to dwell on that very steep downside because the future, oddly, couldn’t look brighter. That is, if you’re talking about the future of watching movies—and about the future of movie theaters, if you’re willing to call any home space that can match or exceed the experience of a commercial cinema a movie theater.

 

As I was writing up a review of The Shining to post later this week, I realized we’ve reached a tipping point with luxury home cinema. We’ve all sensed this coming for a while, and we’ve frequently documented the various developments here on the site. (Vide the sidebar to the immediate left for a sampling.) But the proliferation of big-screen displays capable of cinema-level performance, the 4K release of what would have normally been theatrical titles straight to the home market, and the rush to meet the increased demand for home viewing by upping catalog titles to 4K HDR has created a world where having a movie-theater-quality experience at home is shifting rapidly from being the exception to the rule.

 

As the rise of that market continues to accelerate, you can expect to see the number of older titles receiving the 4K HDR treatment accelerate as well. Sure, every new format has meant seeing the studios shine up their catalogs so they can trot them out yet one more time. But no previous format could match that movie theater experience. This one can. And that changes everything.

 

Both the gear and the playback have gotten to be so good that even putting together a basic system for a secondary room can result in performance that can at least match your local theater (when it’s open). And what you can achieve with a professionally engineered and calibrated system can blow any commercial theater out of the water.

 

We do need some commercial theaters, but only a few, and 

only as revival houses and for savoring the occasional (increasingly rare) film that really deserves a big, big screen. As for chain theaters, who needs ‘em?

 

At a time when it can be damn hard to find an upside to anything, we can at least look forward to a flood of titles once meant for theaters heading straight to the home, and an increasing profusion of older titles looking better than they ever have. All of it to be enjoyed comfortably, on our own schedule, and on a personal system that puts any cineplex auditorium to shame. As a temporary refuge from the raging nuttiness of the outside world, I’ll take that any day.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.