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.
(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
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
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 Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.
PODCAST EP. 19
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
6:21 His experiences working on the Paradiso
8:20 The importance of focusing on the room’s
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
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
18:14 The problem with relying too much on
digital room correction
19:17 Tuning a room’s acoustics for various
21:00 The increasing use of video walls in
23:03 The importance of finding a good theater
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