For years Napa Valley residents that enjoy going to the movies have been groaning about the Cinedome movie theater. I'm one of them. Sure it was a great place to watch movies decades ago but things have changed. Over the years as newer theaters in the surrounding area have updated to stadium seating, larger screens, and even the IMAX treatment, the old Cinedome languished.
I won't pretend to understand the financial situation, or reasons why the Cinedome never got a refresh and maybe in the end it doesn't matter. With the new Cinemark theater located at the corner of Gasser and Imola I'm thrilled and also a bit sad as well.
Like any other local, I remember things that once were, and are no longer. I have great memories as a kid going to the Cinedome theater. More times than I can count I remember my Mom taking me and my sister for night out to the dome. I even remember my Mom parking by that parking ticket dispenser while I would jump out and drop some quarters in it. Anybody else remember that? My Mother is no longer with us, but it's one of many memories I will carry with me always.
By the late 90s, the old theater was getting a little long in the tooth. And I know how these things shake out. With the new, the old will end quickly, like a predator's bite to the neck. How else can it turn out? Well enough of that, I should move on to the new movie theater in Napa before I reminisce about watching Star Wars at the old drive-in movie theater.
Time for something new
Spring/summer 2011 is when I first remember seeing the ground being prepared for the new movie theater along with the announcement for a spring 2012 opening. For months, nothing was happening and it seemed like that target date was really just wishful thinking. It was, because the date was pushed, and tomorrow Friday Nov 9th 2012 is the first official day that the theater is open to the public.
On Wednesday Nov 7th at 6PM, the theater had a VIP/invitation only night. It felt like a night to introduce the new theater and also a chance to test out the landing gear as it were. I arrived a couple of hours early not only to get a few photographs of the new joint but to get the all the details of the theater. So I will share all of that with all you. For the more technically inclined cinephiles stick around, I've got those details too.
Pulling into the parking lot, I knew right away that it's 2012 and not 1988. In the parking lot, there are parking spaces just for clean air vehicles, and charging stations for electric vehicles. So I'll get right to it, because you can't miss the giant sign, there is no IMAX to be found here. But it's not all bad news, this theater features Cinemark's new NextGen philosophy a blending of cutting edge state of the art sound and vision, and the latest in amenities. This particular theater is also a Cinemark XD type, featuring one flagship Extreme Digital Cinema auditorium.
A little tour
Upon arrival I met Cinemark's Marketing Director Bryan Jeffries and he kindly gave me a quick tour and answered every question I had despite the fact that he was surrounded by a flurry of activity. The clock was ticking, and I could feel the tension around me. So the usual details, the new theater features 2,000 total seats and 12 screens all featuring wall to wall screens. As I entered the flagship auditorium, Bryan informed me that it contained 300 seats and the new Dolby Atmos sound system (more on that later) with JBL providing the speakers.
Bryan also took me to the smallest theater a tiny 80 seat auditorium. I've been to many like this because I enjoy independent and low budget films, and theaters that support those films will inevitably throw light for these features in the small rooms. What impressed me is that the same NextGen style seating found in the biggest auditorium is found here as well. Even better, despite the small room size, the screen takes up nearly every inch of the 4th wall as possible (aspect ratios prevent any theater from using all the wall space).
As I walked around I started to notice the little things. In the Xtreme XD auditorium, anyone sitting in the very front row won't be straining their necks. The reason? The screen comes down, nearly all the way to the floor. Near the middle of the seating, a walkway cuts through and there are three seats missing leaving perfect little knolls or vantage points for wheelchair users. The LED lighting is more thoughtfully placed to prevent tripping as well.
I also noticed that the seats and rows are numbered. This would allow specific seats to be sold for special events. Another big difference here, the fabric seats are gone. No more seats soaked in soda (hopefully it's soda right?) any funny business can be wiped away in seconds. The seats are very ergonomic, and nicely padded. The spacing between rows isn't too tight so you won't be getting so unintentionally intimate with every stranger if you get up to use the restroom.
After walking into a few different auditoriums, I made my way to the concessions area. For the opening night various Hors d’Oeuvres would be served outside. Once inside only refreshments and popcorn were available. I did notice the wine bar, but that would not be available until the first official opening day. By 5:30pm a large crowd had gathered outside making quick work of snacks, sticking close to outdoor heaters.
By 6PM people were flowing inside to be greeted by a huge open space and high ceilings. Guests mingled, ate popcorn and explored the new theater. At 7PM all twelve screens would be showing a different movie. Movies ranged from the new-ish Taken 2 to recent blockbusters like The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man and a small budget movie The Perks Of Being a Wallflower. My only real goal was to watch whatever was being shown on the flagship screen for the purpose of sharing my thoughts.
Technical details only for the hard core
I'm not your usual moviegoer, I'm a very picky nerd. I understand the technology, the jargon, and you can't fool me. The presentation and delivery is either impressive or it isn't. After asking the usual questions, I got down to the nitty-gritty and I'm lucky that Bryan Jeffries didn't give me the blank look I usually get when I ask the kinds of questions that I do.
Standing in the flagship auditorium, I asked Bryan if they were using 4K projectors. He answered yes, and my mistake was not making it clear if every auditorium was 4K. Either way, on the smaller screens it's not as critical and 2K are just fine. The Cameo theater in St. Helena has a wonderful 2K DLP projector using Dolby 3D technology, here Cinemark uses RealD 3D technology.
I asked if 2D movies would be shown in the XD auditorium, and Mr. Jeffries stated there would be 2D and 3D movies, both tickets would be a premium over the other smaller screens. When pressed about pricing, there was some hesitation, I'm not sure if he was genuinely drawing a blank or simply uncomfortable with the question. I asked if XD tickets were more or less than an IMAX ticket. His response was that the ticket prices would be in line with an IMAX ticket price.
I continued to press Bryan about the projectors, he told me that Sony (amongst others) were passed over in favor of Barco DLP projectors not only for their claim of delivering the brightest image (crucial for 3D movies with light robbing glasses) but for their ability to more easily scale their frame rate.
As if 3D, IMAX, XD and Dolby weren't enough to keep straight, you've got more technology coming your way, and that's HFR or high frame rate films. For many, many decades 24 frames per second has been and continues to be the way movies are presented. To reduce flicker a digital projector can flash the same frame multiple times like triple for 72 fps, or an odd number like 60 using a pull down method. But in the end, there are only 24 real, actual frames being shown.
Back before most people reading this were even born, it was actually 48, but to save costs, and valuable film stock, 24 was chosen because it was the minimum required to give the proper illusion movement. But 24fps has always had problems, the main one being movement that's not crisp and any movement by any object or person results in their image being blurred, the result of a shutter speed of only 1/50th of a second. That's why fight scenes can turn to a blurry mess. To combat this, a director can choose a higher shutter speed, but the result can be a choppy look. But with digital coming in and film going out, directors and studios are no longer limited to film's constraints.
The first major motion picture to be filmed at a higher frame rate is the forthcoming Hobbit movie from director Peter Jackson shot on Red cameras at 48fps. Not all theaters have the ability to vary their frame rate, so they will present at 24fps . According to Mr. Jeffries, the Barco projectors can and will present the new Hobbit movie at 48fps.
In case you were wondering what it looks like, just take a look at a new 120hz LCD TV. It can have a strange camcorder, too smooth look. Younger people like it, I hate it. It's called the "soap opera effect" because it gives major motion pictures a live video look. But there's key difference here. A TV at home is faking the whole thing. Using software and hardware it's creating frames that never existed and inserting them in between the real frames. All this is based on the motion of the real frames. It's not perfect and there are image artifacts. My TV features this tech, and I have it off at all times.
In theaters, HFR films will be the real deal. Digging deeper, it appears that the Barco projector will show the 48fps at 96hz or showing each frame twice to eliminate any chance of visible flicker. So let's talk about the image quality.
I don't know for certain that Barco makes the brightest projectors, but even if they were stretching the truth, Barco has nothing to worry about. I viewed The Amazing Spider-Man in the XD room in 3D (RealD) and even with the tint of the polarized 3D glasses, the image was very bright, crisp and colorful. The color was dialed in just right, the blacks were good, but not inky, but that's a limitation of DLP technology. Overall the image quality is stunning, and about as good as it gets. I looked carefully for ghosting, I studied the corners for any signs of softness, no lens flare to be found, nothing.
The new XD auditorium features Dolby Atmos (short for atmosphere) sound system. Going way beyond the 7.1 sound in the rest of the Cinemark auditoriums, this is very new. The first soundtrack mixed for Dolby Atmos was the Pixar film Brave. While Dolby Labs expects a big rollout of Atmos in 2013 there are only a handful of Atmos equipped theaters, and one of them is now in Napa. The movie I saw did not feature the Atmos soundtrack. Featuring speakers not just all around you, but in the ceiling as well, the sounds of a helicopter or rain will bring a whole new experience.
While the sound was truly top notch, it was missing the deep down, rock bottom sounds I've heard in an IMAX theater. Having only seen one film in the new XD room, I can't say their subwoofers are lacking, it could have been the soundtrack. Star Trek 2009 and Avatar with IMAX sound went low, more the kind you feel in your gut rather than hear, truly stunning. I didn't hear anything like that with only this one viewing.
Bottom line time to compare
This new theater beats out anything in Sonoma county, and soundly beats out the 14 screen theater in Vallejo. After that, many Napa Valley residents will head out to the Edwards theater in Fairfield. With the screens covering nearly every inch in the Napa theater, I'd still say Napa wins. Compared to the LieMax (fake IMAX) in Fairfield, I would say it's a close call to the XD. The Fairfield auditorium is larger (if memory serves me) and the sound wins. But the image in the XD room is brighter, makes use of more of that fourth wall, and the seats are better. Maybe it's a wash.
This new theater is great but it still doesn't beat the real IMAX. There are only two real ones in northern California. One is located in Dublin, the other is at the Metreon in SF. Those screens are huge on another level with stunning sound, the kind that reminds you of the Hulk punching a tank. Figure in gas, time, bridge toll and the hassle of parking in SF, IMAX is only for really big tentpole films like Avatar. Otherwise Napa now has the best theater in the area.