“It’s all about the experience.” This is the mantra I often hear when people describe the evolution of consumer expectations in many different aspects of life. Whether it’s or dining out (dinner in the field where the produce is grown!) a unique charity auction item (get an exclusive underground tour of Bertha!) or even weddings (suddenly, magicians, cornhole or some other such diversion for guests is a box to check off on planning to-do list), we’ve obviously all apparently become so collectively bored that the ante to whatever it is we’re doing at the moment must be upped to hold our attention.
A night at the movies are no exception. Gimmicks have sort of stalled out at the 3D classes and seats you can reserve in advance. We’re ready for the next thing.
This desire for something dazzling is the driving factor behind a brand-new theatrical movie presentation style that Seattle-area residents are among the first to experience. Last Thursday, my family and I attended an advanced screening of Star Trek Beyond shown in the Barco Escape format (full disclosure, tickets were paid for by Barco Experience), exclusively available in the Seattle area at Cinemark Lincoln Square Cinemas in the Bellevue Collection. Preview it here.
So, what is Barco, exactly?
It’s a three-screen, panoramic movie theater projection system, developed by a Belgium-based Belgian American Radio Company (hence, the Barco), best known for their cinema projectors. Each screen is 30 feet–the size of an average movie screen--for a 90-foot total screen. (The largest single Barco screen is 40 feet, in Antwerp, Belgium, in case you’re wondering). Cinema 15 at Cinemark Lincoln Square Cinemas is the only movie theater in the Seattle area with this setup—and one of only 30 such theaters in the world.
Here’s how it works: Instead of one screen in the center, three screens—one in front and two on either side—are engaged at various parts in the movie. There’s always an image on the center panel and sometimes the image is shown on all three during specific action sequences or sweeping shots showing the vast scope of intergalactic warp speed travel, for example.
For Star Trek, all in all, about 20 minutes from the movie are shown in the Barco format. Producer JJ Abrahams and director Justin Lin hand-picked select sequences “where the format could add value and enhance the story,” says Todd Hoddick, Barco Escape’s CEO and the man behind this new format.
Hoddick came up with the idea after nearly a decade of working for the company. “I went to my boss and said, I’ve been talking to our customers,” he says. “They say, ‘We love [our] great image, but it feels a little sterile. What happened to the showmanship? Can you bring that back to us?’ So for 4 years we’ve been developing…this process.”
Of course, Seattleites are no stranger to cinematic bells and whistles. We have theaters showing 3D movies (some of which we’ve slogged through wondering why we forked out the extra money, Wrath of the Titans, I’m looking at you), Imax, 70mm format and, of course, we have the Cinerama--our family’s favorite movie house (and not just for the chocolate popcorn).
“Cinerama is a great reference and was a great example of how to improve the movies and get back to the showmanship,” says Hoddick. “The theater is updated but it is still just a single screen. [Barco] is the only place to go to have the movie all around you,” he says adding that you don’t need 3-D glasses to experience it. (Just to be clear, not all shows at the Cinerama are in 3D but the screen is indeed YUGE!)
My husband and I bonded over movies early in our relationship and as a result, movies are front and center for our family too, so we’re game to try anything. Add to that I live in a house of sci-fi geeks and since it was Star Trek, we were in.
Does it deliver? It was entertaining and even “immersive” many times as they promised (which, unprompted, is the word my 14-year-old used to describe it).
I wasn’t keeping track of time with a stopwatch but it seemed like more than 20 minutes of footage total shown on all three screens, partly I think because all three screens are engaged only periodically on and off throughout the showing. Sometimes it’s seamless and you are swept into the panoramic vistas. Other times you can’t stop looking at where the screens meet, where the projected image doesn’t quite precisely blend. I thought the switching back and forth would be more annoying but it wasn’t.
To get the maximum impact, it’s best to sit in the “sweet spot” of the theater: the middle third of the theater--not the first section closest to the screen (though the last row of the first section might work). I was concerned the show would be in a small theater, but it’s in an average Cineplex-sized theater (number 15). My husband, who sat on the end of the aisle, didn’t enjoy it as much as my younger son and I did (we were sitting in the middle); we figured the viewing angle didn’t work as well.
The whole thing, to me, was a stadium-concert-meets-the-movies experience, in the sense that these big-format screens were all on at some points and at other points only some were on. Because the movie is so fast paced, it also felt more like a two-hour ride at a theme park, no doubt made more so by the Barco setup. “Too Fast and Furious” was my husband’s off-the-cuff review (the film is directed by the Furious franchise director Jason Lin). But it was fun, entertaining and light: the perfect medicine for everything else we bear witness on screens these days. All at about the same price of a regular movie: $14.50 general and $11.75 per child.
I would go again, but Barco Escape movies are not rolling out as quickly as 3D movies were once the technology was ready. (In case you’re wondering, when a theater is not showing a film in this format, the screens can be hidden away behind a curtain so movie theaters can use them as they normally would). This is the first Barco Escape movie since 2015’s Maze Runner, but Hollywood is developing more films specifically for Barco format, including films from Jerry Bruckheimer; the director of Need for Speed, and deals are in the works with major studios such as 20th Century Fox (and Barco is aiming for 100 theaters globally by the end of the year). But there’s something to this, because can’t really do better than a testimony from uber producer J.J. Abrams. From Barco’s press materials:
"Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond is an epic adventure — truly larger than life. It is especially fitting, then, that we are partnering with Barco to provide an ultra-wide-screen immersive experience using their unique Barco Escape format. This premium format dramatically expands the width of the viewing plane, giving filmmakers an innovative new tool with which to tell stories and audiences an enhanced new way to experience cinema."
And so we come full circle back to that holy grail: the seeking--and delivery--of that new experience. As we become nestled in our homes bingeing on UnReal and Game of Thrones—my fellow tv addicts know there is a lot of TV with compelling story lines now--cinemas are trying to find ways to lure people back to the movies, and Barco is the latest bait.
I asked our local film festival authority to weigh in. “In regards to SIFF, we are completely about the experience of seeing a film,” wrote Seattle International Film Festival executive director Carl Spence in an email exchange. He hasn’t seen a movie in Barco format yet, but is curious to check it out. “For us this transcends more than just frame rates and screen size and shape.”
But even SIFF, rightly so, is experimenting with new experiential theatrical formats. In May, I attended SIFF’s well-executed virtual reality SIFFx series and watched some shorts projected on the ceiling of the Pacific Science Center planetarium, a technique designed to create a sort of communal virtual reality experience. Can full-on virtual reality films in wide theatrical release be far behind? Like the Betamax video cassettes, some technologies will stick, some won’t.
Spence is right; the story still must ultimately be what entertains, but Barco certainly is entertaining. Amidst the bells and whistles that night at the Cinemark, something piqued my interest just as much as the Barco screens: the massive lines snaking through the lobby for showings of the India-made Kabali. The theater is popular local spot for movies made in India (check here for show times). Just like Star Trek’s themes of interplanetary harmony, it was a melting pot of a reminder of how movies can bring worlds together in the most magnificent way, regardless of how they make it to the screen.
Star Trek Beyond is showing in Barco Escape format at Cinemark Lincoln Square Cinemas. Barco wants to know what you think of the experience—you can learn more and offer feedback via The Barco Escape Facebook page, on Twitter (@barcoescape) and ready2escape.com. During the Star Trek Beyond showing, they’re giving away a dream trip anywhere in North America (barcoescapesweepstakes.com)--look for one of their black tee shirt-clad brand ambassadors holding an iPad after the show to enter.