Movie theaters find second life, as third place

Digital technology (the savior or nemesis off all types of media) has a new role in movie theaters.  At least that’s the spin I got from the CEO of a small chain, called Galaxy Theatres, based in Sherman Oaks, CA.

Cinemas used to be limited to whatever films they had on-hand during any given week.  By going “digital,” they can play video from many potential sources — anything you can send via the internet or a satellite.  In addition to playing movies, they could show big-screen Monday Night Football in 3-D.  Or, host a giant viewing party for the Presidential Inauguration.  Or, rent the theater out for a myriad of possible personalized showings.

“Take the words ‘Movie Theater’ off the building.  What do you have?” asks Frank Rimkus, CEO of Galaxy.  I didn’t have much of an answer, so (surprise!) he had his own ready.  He calls it a state-of-the-art presentation facility, with a screen that’s two stories tall.  “If you’ve got that kind of building, what else can you do with it? That’s the question.”

In other words, maybe you’re proud of your 48-inch screen and surround sound at home.  But Galaxy boasts a 900-inch screen.  For extroverts: You could watch with 200 of your closest friends. And, as movie theaters experiment with restaurant-style food, you can imagine a near future where “going to the theater” is a little bit like going to a sports pub.  Voila – a new type of “third place” (a term coined by Ray Oldenburg to refer to social gathering spots).

Galaxy is trying to establish itself as a community gathering spot.  Tomorrow (Wednesday, 1/21/09), in Gig Harbor, WA, it’s playing middleman between the public schools and NASA.  A thousand public school students from the Peninsula School District will have a live satellite connection from the theater to the International Space Station.

The live 20-minute Q-and-A with two astronauts couldn’t happen at one of those old movie theaters using film.   (It’s free and open to the public, by the way, with doors opening at 9:30 am.)

So far, Rimkus says only about 10% of America’s cinemas have upgraded to digital projection.  The Cinerama in Seattle was one of the first.   But he predicts a massive changeover in the next five years.  “The industry is basically taking old propeller airplanes and replacing them with jets,” he says.

Hey, maybe Starbucks, promoter of the Third Place concept, could get into this … bring your laptop, have a latte, and watch a giant screen.