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The Falcon

Seattle Pacific University's Student Newspaper

The Falcon

Seattle Pacific University's Student Newspaper

The Falcon

Cinerama reopens as SIFF Cinema Downtown

Eager movie-goers fill halls of landmark Cinerama Theater, now under SIFF’s loving care
The electrical box across the street from the SIFF Cinerama displays the theaters famous chocolate popcorn on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Seattle. (Rio Giancarlo)

SIFF Cinema Downtown celebrated its grand re-opening on Dec. 14, 2023, with a showing of Paul King’s new film “Wonka,” which is a fitting story of pure imagination that perfectly reintroduces the public to all the delicious joy the historic building has to offer. 

Before becoming SIFF Cinema Downtown, the theater had a long history as Cinerama. Opening in 1963 as Seattle’s Martin Cinerama, the theater was built to show the then-popular format of Cinerama projection. 

Cinerama is a widescreen process that projects images from three synchronized 35mm projectors onto a large, curved, screen. With the television age in full swing, Cinerama was introduced to audiences in the 1950s as the film industry attempted to lure audiences back to theaters. Cinerama presented itself as more of a theatrical event, fit with reserved seating, programs and classy attire, rather than the casual movie-going experience it became. 

When Seattle’s Cinerama Theater closed for renovations in May of 2020, it was one of only three theaters left in the world that still used the Cinerama technique and one of two that still had the licensing for the Cinerama name. 

In its early days, the theater played large-scale films as well as lesser-known ones that appealed largely to the cinephile audiences. With the wide range of movies offered to audiences, patrons had more than enough reasons to keep coming back. The theater stayed afloat for many years with a steady stream of customers. 

Unfortunately, somewhere over the next three decades, they found themselves unable to sustain ticket sales as families were driven to the suburbs, and eventually, under new ownership, resorted to showing second-run movies. 

In 1997, developers revealed their plan to shut down Cinerama and turn it into a more profitable business; a rock-climbing club. An immediate grassroots effort to save the historic venue followed. 

As film buffs passed around petitions and raised money, Seattle native, and multi-billionaire, Paul Allen answered the call. Allen had frequented the theater in his youth and recognized the significance of the theater in the Pacific Northwest’s arts culture. Upon purchasing the theater, he initiated a multi-million dollar renovation, complete with new state-of-the-art technology, accessibility features and a display of famous sci-fi costumes from Allen’s collection. 

In February 2020, Cinerama closed for its fourth renovation, to reopen later in the year, but without a set date. Laying off almost all of their staff shortly after unclear circumstances, the chance of reopening seemed unlikely. In May, they officially announced that Cinerama would be closing down for good.

Yet again, Cinerama proved its importance in Seattle’s culture as thousands of people banded together to try and save the theater. In spring 2023, after three years of hopeful unrest, SIFF acquired the theater from Allen’s estate. 

Seattle Pacific University’s professor of communications, Todd Rendleman, found the purchase to be an important save.

“It’s just a valuable part of this city’s history and culture, and it’s a great way to get people excited to go see movies again,” Rendleman said. 

Among the many fond memories Rendleman has of Cinerama is when he got the chance to experience the theater with one of his classes. 

“The last movie I saw at the Cinerama was the first reboot of ‘Halloween,’ with Jamie Lee Curtis producing that. In fact, we went together with students because I was teaching Intro to Film Genres at that point, and some students went down to see it because we were watching the first ‘Halloween’ here in this lovely theater, it’s modest, and that was one we got to see there before everything tightened up and kind of shut down,” Rendleman reminisced. “I really do have unique memories of many of the films I got to see there because the fact that it was at the Cinerama really ramped up your enthusiasm to see it.”

SIFF began in 1976 as what would become the annual Seattle International Film Festival before expanding into an educational non-profit dedicated to creating an engaging space for film lovers. SIFF offers year-round screenings in its four theaters, educational film programs, Film Talks, a series of mini-festival releases and special premiere screenings and events. 

Second-year computer science major Curtis Kitchen recently visited SIFF Cinema Downtown, and while he was a fan of the theater itself, he did not care for the popular, yet divisive chocolate popcorn. The treat had been a staple of Cinerama since it first opened. 

“It was extremely disappointing, I did not like it, I didn’t even want to continue holding the bag of popcorn throughout the rest of the movie,” Kitchen said. 

Charlotte Choat, a second-year linguistics major, had mixed feelings about the treat. 

 “It was a little weird when it was warm, but when it cooled and dried, it tasted like caramel corn, so it was much better that way,” Choat said. 

Rendleman, on the other hand, finds that the famous popcorn elevates the movie-going experience. 

“I enjoy the chocolate popcorn, it’s something I avoided for a while because when you go to see a lot of movies you can’t get a snack every time, but once I tried it I think I was addicted,” Rendleman shared. “It’s very shareable, it’s very tasty, and again people look forward to that being a part of the experience.” 

Though the same could not be said for the popcorn, both Kitchen and Choat would recommend the theater to other SPU students. 

“The sound quality was better overall than most theaters I’ve been to in Seattle, the screen was also bigger and clearer than other theaters. I also found the seats to be very comfortable. The staff was extremely kind and accommodating, which I really appreciated,” Kitchen said. 

Visitors can watch a variety of carefully curated films, 363 days a year, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Film Center, and its newly opened SIFF Cinema Downtown. With theaters spread all across the city, special $6 movie Mondays and Teen Tix partnerships, SIFF is very accessible for Seattle Pacific University students looking to catch a movie.

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About the Contributors
Emma Mathews
Emma Mathews, Event Coordinator
Rio Giancarlo
Rio Giancarlo, Chief Photographer
Rio is a sophomore visual communication major with a minor in photography. Rio manages a team of photographers and illustrators to supply content for the greater SPU media groups. Before he took his current position he worked as a staff photographer, mostly covering sports. When not working for The Falcon he works for the SPU athletic department and as a freelance photographer. In his free time you can find him skiing, or wishing he was skiing. 
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