Aug-2000 Film Journal

By Larry Jacobson

The value of the projection mezzanine (“the booth”) continues to intrigue me. The mezzanine structures of today are built only to accommodate film projectors. They are positioned behind and above the last row of seats in each auditorium because of film projector requirements.

Traditional “booth” installations make theatre operations much more difficult and inefficient than is necessary. Distancing of projection and management personnel from the “sales floor” of the theatre (and, make no mistake, theatres are retail operations) is a source for concern. Ushers and supervisory personnel should be in the auditoriums checking light and audio levels. They should monitor quality from the patrons’ viewpoint. But that’s hardly possible if they are perpetually stuck in the “the booth” deal­ing with film, projectors and sound systems. Why would one prefer a pro­jection mezzanine to a central control room on the theatre level, where a single computer can control which movie is playing and what the start time is for each?

Why build a mezzanine? There are approximately 2,000 pounds of equipment in front of each port glass adjacent to every theatre auditorium today. There are several pieces of equipment that are required to properly exhibit a movie on film. With the advent of digital cinema, the equipment will be reduced to a single projection system weighing about 250 pounds, requiring approximately 25 square feet of space.

Why build a mezzanine? Sound-system power amplifiers can be placed elsewhere. I would prefer them to be behind the screen, but they could be in small areas on the ground floor in close proximity to the audi­torium. We’re not talking about huge stage productions—we’re dealing with a finite number of audio channels, amplifiers and processors.

Why build a mezzanine? Let’s assume for a moment that I am an exhibitor and you are the designer. I bring a self-contained digital projec­tor to your office and demonstrate its capabilities. I explain that my 250-pound machine can be controlled from a central location and the movie can be loaded at that location. Would your immediate response be to design a mezzanine projection booth?

Looking at this exhibitor/designer relationship from the other side: If I, the designer, came to you with your projector and explained that, although you could load a movie and operate the unit remotely, my the­atre design included a mezzanine projection booth, you would probably question my methods.

The traditional projection mezzanine carries a steep price. A typical megaplex can have 85,000 square feet of building footprint. At an average cost of $110 per square foot, the cost for the building (not including site work and FF&E costs) would be approximately $9,350,000. The area of a projection mezzanine for this size building would be about 17,000 square feet. At an average cost of $70 per square foot for a mezzanine, the mez­zanine expenditure would be approximately $1,190,000. This means the projection mezzanine is almost 13 percent of the overall building cost. Being able to delete the projection mezzanine obviously results in signifi­cant construction cost savings for the theatre. In addition to this considerable cost sav­ings, deletion of the projection mezzanine allows the height of the building to be reduced, sometimes by as much as two to three feet. In today’s construction market, reducing the height of the building can save approximately two dollars per square foot for each foot of height saved. In an 85,000-square-foot build­ing, this means a savings of approximately $170,000 per foot of height reduction. Projection mezzanines are expensive compo­nents of traditional film theatre buildings.

Film projectors require a large amount of space to operate, and per­sonnel to maintain the equipment and film. Digital projectors require very little space and very minimal attention. Theatre designs have been devel­oped that will allow film projection systems to be used in auditoriums, without a projection mezzanine, so that the exhibitor will have the flexi­bility to install digital-projection systems without major changes to each auditorium.

Digital projectors will eventually be able to be installed in small closet-like spaces at the rear of an auditorium, suspended from the ceiling of an auditorium, or even built into the stadium-riser system. Today’s electronic projectors, installed in venues other than movie theatres, function perfect­ly suspended from the ceiling. The projection mezzanine becomes totally unnecessary

The elimination of the projection mezzanine represents only a part of the financial efficiency of a true digital-cinema design. The auditoriums no longer have to back up to a projection mezzanine, nor do they have to be contiguous. The auditoriums can be organized for patron movement and staff efficiency. Auditorium demising walls can now become less costly exterior walls. Auditoriums may be grouped without considering the need for long corridors. Satellite concession stands necessitated by long corri­dors can be reduced or eliminated. Fewer ushers are required to monitor auditorium entrances. “Jumping” from one auditorium to another by patrons is easier to control.

The cost savings achieved by the elimination of the projection mez­zanine would certainly enhance the bottom line of most theatres. Clearly, the departure of “the booth” would abrogate the need for ser­pentine hallways, ancillary concession stands, and overloaded person­nel payrolls.

In conclusion, digital projectors are smaller than their film counterpart, reasonably lightweight, and require minimal maintenance or attention. They can be located within each auditorium, rather than in a common projection mezzanine. Sound systems used with digital projectors do not require as many components and can, therefore, be located within or adja­cent to each auditorium. This makes each auditorium self-contained. The traditional projection mezzanine is, simply, no longer required. Theatres can now be designed for patron enjoyment and staff efficiency—not for the requirements of the equipment.

Larry Jacobson is President and co-founder of LJ Technologies, Inc., located in Kansas City. He may be reached at (913) 438-1900.                         (21)