Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 21, 1999

Theater screening

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
The neon lights on the ceiling at the newly opened Signature Theaters
at Dole Cannery Square are supposed to represent palm trees.

New, improved theaters offer
the ultimate movie viewing, with
hi-tech sound and roomy seats


By Burl Burlingame


WHEW! The "Phantom Menace" is finally with us, and we can take a break from the pathologically elevated hype and get back to simply enjoying movies.

Luckily, as he did in 1983, George Lucas has used his marketing muscle to "convince" theater owners to improve the viewing experience. LucasFilm unveiled its "THX" sound system at the time, and there was gawd-almighty squawking from the chains. Now THX is a complete viewing-management system, dedicated to every aspect of the movie-watching experience, theaters have wised up and are crowing about the high-tech wizardry they've installed. This includes not only THX sound systems -- and rival SDDS, DTS, Dolby and other digital sound imaging -- but the little things as well. Like extra restroom stalls for women.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
New "stadium" seats at the renovated Waikiki Twins
Theatre make for lots of leg room.

The newest sound wrinkle is THX and Dolby's "Surround EX" system, which the two companies thrashed out while mixing "Menace." It mixes sound in a three-dimensional format, sized to suit theaters, adding ambience and clarity. At minimum, theaters needed to pick up a gizmo called a Dolby SA10 Adaptor for $2,500, plus the expense of additional speakers if they weren't already installed.

If you count the refurbished Waikiki Twins, in addition to the Ko'olau 10 and the Cannery 18, suddenly we have 30 more movie screens in Honolulu. How do they compare?

The primary visual difference is that they have new carpeting, speakers and "stadium" seats. The seats are wonderful. They're also standard equipment in new theaters. In some older theaters, the seats are so flimsy and crammed together it's like flying in a Russian airliner.



Grade -- A
Price of Popcorn -- $4.50


Grade -- B
Price of Popcorn -- $3.75


Grade -- B+
Price of Popcorn -- $3.85

The new style seats have armrests that flip up, creating "love seats," and are wider across your okole. Consolidated removed several hundred of the older seats from the Twins to improve the viewing experience.

Stadium seats have higher backs as well, providing occipital support. Although the "rake" or angle of the seating area is steeper in stadium-type seats, Consolidated was not able to retrofit the Twins. There was no problem with angles, though -- every seat in the house has a splendid view of the screen. The Waikiki seats also tilt back slightly, the only stadium seats we saw that do so.

The sound quality was adequate in a screening of "Phantom Menace." It was difficult to tell if the tinny wall-mounted speakers were contributing to the overall effect. The air-conditioning still smells damp, an on-going problem at the Twins.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
New lights at Waikiki Twins.

If you buy your "Menace" ticket in advance, you don't get the $2 parking rebate.

TAKING over the back lot of Temple Valley Shopping Center, the Ko'olau theaters fill a niche in a previously overlooked part of Oahu's population base. Due to the vagaries of highway design, the theaters are just as far away in terms of drive-time from Kailua as downtown theaters, but H-3 drivers coming from Halawa can get there pretty quickly.

The Ko'olaus have a utilitarian look, very generic Art Deco with jagged, circus colors. The bathroom signs are spectacularly tiny and easy to overlook. The printed tickets, on the other hand, are huge.

There's a room full of noisy video games and some sort of "customer service" kiosk that appears to be selling carry-aways like basketballs.

We saw "October Sky" there -- still the best film so far this year -- in one of the smaller theaters. Though the stadium seating didn't recline, it was very comfortable. The sound was naturalistic and un-fussy, but it was also a movie that has nothing in the way of special effects. The screen appeared flat. Most modern theaters have curved screens that are shaped according to a mathematical formula so the projection beam illuminates the screen evenly -- which is more important in larger theaters. The image was rock-steady and bright.

While not spectacular, the Ko'olaus compare favorably to other theaters of similar size.

EXCEPT for a couple of Maui theaters some years ago, these are actually the first theaters in Hawaii to get a thumbs-up from the THX techno-geeks in the "theater alignment" program.

Signature has installed the new Surround EX systems from the get-go, reproducing our perception of the real world: we see what's directly in front of us, but hear in 360 degrees. "Phantom Menace," and the upcoming "The Haunting" are the first films to take advantage of this technology, with the sound editing becoming an integral part of the story-telling process.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Snack bar at the Ko'olau 10 theater in Temple Valley.

Simply placing speakers all the way around a theater's walls helps, but it's not the same. The channels are still divided left and right; there's no "back." The speakers also need to be precisely aimed at two-thirds of the sweep across the seats so there's no spillover noise. Signature's Dole Cannery theaters have met these exacting specifications, and they feature stadium seats to boot. It's an ideal movie-going experience, even though it's placed in what is essentially a well-hidden industrial park.

The 80,000-square-foot theater site is enormous. The lobby ceiling is so high the space resembles a movie set, complete with neon "palm-tree" pillars and koa details. It's probably best to think of the site as two nine-plexes. The central corridor is so long additional bathrooms were installed halfway.

The lobby also features a little cafe called Critic's Corner in addition to the snack counter. "Our profit center," as Signature president Philip Harris calls it. He's particularly proud of the pretzels. A "Quik Tix" booth outside dispenses tickets like an ATM machine, good for five days in advance.

The projection booth features 5,000-watt projectors -- the average projector houses 2,000-watt units -- and 13,000-watt sound systems for each theater. THX technicians did computer modeling for each theater's screen size and angle to prevent image drop-off and keystoning of images. Each screen was constructed to specs for its space.

Sound and projection quality are superb, and this is the theater of choice for "Phantom Menace" techheads. The sound and projection quality in the non-THX theaters was very good, just not up to this standard.

The biggest problem with the Cannery theaters is location. Although it's in a high-residential zone, there really isn't any "neighborhood" around it. The site isn't designed for easy access. Once there, however, patrons can park free behind the Cannery offices or in the parking structure above the theaters. Parking is free for four hours; make sure your ticket is validated at the box office. The theater will soon start offering valet parking for $3 directly in front of the lobby.

The combination of many screens, an enormous lobby and nearby conference-room abilities at the Dole Cannery office complex make the Signature ideal for a film festival, and Harris said the site will become the official home of the Hawaii International Film Festival.

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