In April, Universal Studios Hollywood opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – an intricate recreation of the universe created in J.K. Rowling’s series of “Harry Potter” novels, then interpreted for the Warner Bros. films – where fans have the opportunity to lose themselves in the world they love so much.
Content with what they’d built at “Wizarding World,” the minds at Universal Creative, the team that conceptualizes and deploys large-scale projects at Universal, set their sights on Universal CityWalk’s AMC Theatre, which, other than the installation of stadium-style seating in 2007, had gone untouched since it was built in 1993.
“We wanted a departure from the traditional movie experience,” said Gene Dobrzyn, senior vice president of Universal Creative.
That departure starts as soon as patrons enter the lobby and the newly designed box office area. The lobby is open-format, eschewing the lurid reds and jewel tones favored by many theatre chains in favor of cool blues and grays.
“The blue theme flows throughout,” said Dobrzyn. “We didn’t want to plaster it with Universal, we wanted to bring the Universal feel into it.”
Dobrzyn goes on to point out the large sunburst chandeliers overlooking the lobby and globe vista on the second floor, echoes of Universal’s logo that lend themselves to the subconscious branding at work.
Gone are the outdoor box office windows, replaced with a serpentine queue system and centralized box office desk, that allows patrons shelter from the rare adverse L.A. weather.
But for all the beauty of the redesigned lobby and lounge areas, the success or failure of the new-look AMC lives and dies on what lies inside the four walls of each of the 19 auditoriums – each of which is called the “black box.”
Black walls, black speakers, black seats – each of the theatres designed to minimize any and all light interference that might distract from the film-going experience. Even the guide lights that assist patrons with stairs are a deep, unobtrusive blue.
The black seats do more than just absorb light, they also recline and expand into loveseats, creating an intentional feeling of luxury. “You would find these in a normal Hollywood screening style,” Dobrzyn said of the seats, which measure 32″ in width, “It used to be you would come to the movies and worry who you’d sit next to. Now there’s plenty of room.”
But as vital as it is to keep light and distractions out of the black box, what Universal is putting into the black box is an even higher priority.
Each theatre is equipped with Dolby ATMOS immersive surround sound and Christie RGB laser projection, as well as a Christie Vive Audio system, allowing for audio fine-tuning on a theatre-by theatre basis.
“The screens are all latest technology,” said Universal spokeswoman Audrey Eig. “They’re perforated and we have about 40 speakers in each theatre. We can point source audio out of anywhere in the theatre and as the image trails offscreen, the audio trails with it.”
The effect of the high-end projection and sound is palpable. Disney’s “Moana,” projected in 4K perfection, was eye-popping, rendering color and texture in scrupulous detail.
The Christie projectors are a departure from the 35mm film projectors that used to power theatres, replacing bulky reels and film canisters with a sleek black box and laser projection, severing the link to physical film entirely.
Outside the auditoriums lay a lobby and lounge area aimed to be as comfortable and contemporary as the theatres themselves.
Dobrzyn emphasized the importance of the free-flowing layout, using the “grab-and-go” style concessions marketplace as an example.
Clean and airy lounging area from the new multi-million dollar renovation of Universal CityWalk AMC theatre, in Los Angeles.
For each choice meticulously made throughout the 18-month, four-phase process, Universal Creative always came back to the idea of creating a seamless, functional and state-of-the-art environment where film lovers can feel at home as they sit mere feet away from where some of their favorite movies filmed.
Now the creators of “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” just have to wait and see if Universal CityWalk’s AMC Theatre can make a little movie magic of its own.