Can the mul­ti­plex stay in the pic­ture?

The­aters may get that empty feel­ing as Hol­ly­wood’s re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing VR, de­vel­ops.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHRISTO­PHER HAWTHORNE AR­CHI­TEC­TURE CRITIC christo­pher.hawthorne@la­ Twit­ter: @hawthor­nelat

I read a lot of mag­a­zines, blogs and so­cial-me­dia feeds ded­i­cated to ar­chi­tec­ture — more than I’d like to ad­mit. None of them cov­ered the news that Ale­jan­dro Iñár­ritu’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val this year came in the form of a six-minute ex­per­i­ment in vir­tual-re­al­ity film­mak­ing. They prob­a­bly should have. “Carne y Arena,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Iñár­ritu and his long­time cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Em­manuel Lubezki, was de­scribed by my col­league Steven Zeitchik as “a multi-plat­form ex­pe­ri­ence that in­cludes a VR film; it is so sprawl­ing the fes­ti­val in­stalled it in an air­plane han­gar 20 min­utes out­side down­town Cannes.” View­ers strapped on Oculus Rift head­sets and then set out on foot to ex­pe­ri­ence a 360-de­gree story set in the Ari­zona desert, along the U.S.-Mex­ico border.

What does this have to do with ar­chi­tec­ture? Ev­ery­thing.

As the courtship be­tween Hol­ly­wood stu­dios and vir­tual-re­al­ity star­tups in­ten­si­fies, it’s pretty clear who is most anx­ious about be­ing left off the guest list for the even­tual wed­ding: the mul­ti­plex.

It’s telling that there wasn’t a suit­able space among the tra­di­tional Cannes the­aters to ac­com­mo­date “Carne y Arena,” but advances in VR are hardly the only threat to the tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture of moviego­ing. Netflix and other stream­ing ser­vices have al­ready landed se­ri­ous blows. Smart­phone own­ers now carry in their pock­ets a movie the­ater ca­pa­ble of show­ing not just new re­leases but nearly ev­ery movie ever made. This de­vel­op­ment is in its way as desta­bi­liz­ing to tra­di­tional no­tions of re­tail ar­chi­tec­ture, and even city-mak­ing, as the suc­cess of Ama­zon has been to brick and mor­tar book­stores.

Cannes of­fered a very pub­lic plat­form for these anx­i­eties too. When au­di­ence mem­bers rained down boos on the Netflix-pro­duced “Okja,” a film by the Korean di­rec­tor Bong Joon-ho that won’t have a the­atri­cal re­lease, they were mak­ing an ar­chi­tec­tural com­plaint as well as a cin­e­matic one. They were ar­gu­ing that in by­pass­ing typ­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels the stream­ing com­pany was shrinking not just the size of screens on which the film would be watched but the com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence that has al­ways been cen­tral to moviego­ing.

And think about that word, “moviego­ing.” (Or the ti­tle of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel, “The Movie­goer.”) The art form from its ear­li­est days has been in­her­ently ar­chi­tec­tural: to see a movie meant hav­ing a desti­na­tion. The word “cinema” means film­mak­ing; it also means a build­ing that shows movies.

The al­liance looks shaky. Tech­nol­ogy is break­ing up that com­pound word, moviego­ing, peel­ing the noun from the verb.

Span­ish di­rec­tor Pe­dro Almod­ovar, the head of this year’s Cannes com­pe­ti­tion jury, touched on that shift and the wor­ries that come with it when he ar­gued dur­ing the fes­ti­val that a movie screen “should not be smaller than the chair on which you are sit­ting.” It was a cu­ri­ous place to draw that par­tic­u­lar cul­tural line. So a TV at home is an ac­cept­able al­ter­na­tive to the art house, but a phone, tablet or lap­top is not?

And what if — as with “Carne y Arena” — there are no chairs at all? In that case the word “moviego­ing” might be re­de­fined or re­an­i­mated by VR. Watch­ing a film may soon be­come an ex­er­cise in mov­ing through a par­tic­u­lar space as op­posed to the pas­sive ap­proach com­mon to both mul­ti­plex and home view­ing.

It’s pos­si­ble that some for­ward­look­ing the­ater chain will re­spond to these shifts by bril­liantly retrofitting the typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban movie house to ac­com­mo­date VR screen­ings. It seems like­lier that we’ll see the emer­gence of a new kind of gath­er­ing place for vir­tu­al­re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences that by­passes mul­ti­plex own­ers al­to­gether.

In Septem­ber Dream­scape Im­mer­sive, an L.A.-based start-up, will open what it’s call­ing a “VR Mul­ti­plex” in­side the West­field Mall in Cen­tury City. “The fa­cil­ity,” Va­ri­ety re­ported, “will use un-teth­ered VR head­sets to al­low con­sumers to move freely through a space and in­ter­act with real and vir­tual ob­jects as well as with each other.”

The com­pany’s CEO, Bruce Vaughn, is a veteran of Walt Dis­ney Imag­i­neer­ing. Its back­ers in­clude Warner Bros., IMAX and Steven Spiel­berg. One mem­ber of its ad­vi­sory board is the in­dus­trial de­signer Yves Be­har, a name far more fa­mil­iar in Sil­i­con Val­ley than Hol­ly­wood.

Maybe this brave new cin­e­matic world will be a flop, com­mer­cially or oth­er­wise. Maybe it will take some shape we never an­tic­i­pated. The sur­vival skills of the printed book and the vinyl record sug­gest that cer­tain as­pects of the moviego­ing ex­pe­ri­ence may prove to have con­tin­u­ing ap­peal even, or maybe es­pe­cially, in an oth­er­wise dig­i­tized mar­ket­place.

Still, if I were a mul­ti­plex owner or any­body with a ca­reer that de­pends on pre­cisely how the fu­ture of moviego­ing shakes out, I’d be look­ing hard for ex­am­ples where ar­chi­tec­ture and tech­nol­ogy have man­aged to form suc­cess­ful and even sym­bi­otic part­ner­ships.

One comes from the art world, where new and old mu­se­ums alike have be­gun to see smart­phones and so­cial me­dia not just as a ve­hi­cle for free ad­ver­tis­ing but as in­creas­ingly cen­tral to how they de­fine them­selves as in­sti­tu­tions.

A standby line forms nearly ev­ery day out­side the 2-year-old Broad mu­seum, hold­ing vis­i­tors wait­ing for same-day passes. These vis­i­tors, re­ly­ing on the pho­to­genic hon­ey­comb skin of the mu­seum as a back­drop, post a steady stream of images from this line to In­sta­gram, un­der­scor­ing the idea that the queue it­self is an at­trac­tion — and the rep­u­ta­tion of the mu­seum as a sought-af­ter desti­na­tion. The line has its own Twit­ter feed: @TheBroad­S­tandby.

Though this re­liance on buzz un­der­stand­ably trou­bles art-world purists, it has also in­tro­duced a new gen­er­a­tion of An­ge­lenos to mu­seum-go­ing. (It helps that the mu­seum is free.) The av­er­age age of Broad vis­i­tors is no­tice­ably younger than at, say, the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art across the street.

An­other model (and per­haps a stronger one) is the work of the In­dus­try, an ex­per­i­men­tal L.A. opera com­pany whose in­ge­nious pro­duc­tions re­quire au­di­ence mem­bers to move through a se­quence of dif­fer­ent spa­ces. One show, “In­vis­i­ble Ci­ties,” took place in nearly ev­ery cor­ner of Union Sta­tion. An­other, “Hop­scotch,” used a fleet of lim­ou­sines to carry au­di­ence mem­bers and mu­si­cians alike to lo­ca­tions in and around down­town L.A.

The com­pany uses high-tech tools (in­clud­ing wire­less head­sets and screens of many sizes) to turn land­marks into stage sets. Tech­nol­ogy be­comes not a dis­trac­tion in these shows but pre­cisely a means of height­en­ing our at­ten­tion to ar­chi­tec­tural de­tail. The com­pany’s founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor, Yu­val Sharon, is think­ing about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween au­di­ences and tech­no­log­i­cal change as in­ven­tively as any­one in Los An­ge­les.

There are risks in these ex­am­ples when it comes to VR. The ex­pe­ri­ence of us­ing a head­set like Oculus Rift is not just iso­lat­ing, the way watch­ing a movie on a smart­phone or lis­ten­ing to mu­sic through a wire­less head­set can be. It is down­right co­coon­ing.

By now you’ve prob­a­bly seen the photograph of Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg strolling down the aisle at a Euro­pean tech con­fer­ence last year, pass­ing a the­ater full of peo­ple wear­ing VR head­sets as he made his way to the stage. The im­age has be­come a kind of short­hand for the pit­falls of a VR fu­ture in which our dig­i­tal over­lords can see and we all grow blind, even as we’re sure that our vi­sion is be­ing im­proved by the day.

It sug­gests that de­spite ex­am­ples like the Broad, the con­nec­tiv­ity seem­ingly pro­vided by tech­nol­ogy may be il­lu­sory. That the unit that mat­ters when it comes to mea­sur­ing the dis­tance be­tween us is not the inch but the pixel. That it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble for us to be alone — at­om­ized — to­gether.

“Carne y Arena” will be mounted at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art next month. I’ll be cu­ri­ous to see how au­di­ences re­act to it there. I’ll be even more cu­ri­ous to see how and pre­cisely where on the mu­seum cam­pus Iñár­ritu and LACMA de­cide to stage it.

Em­manuel Lubezki

THE VR PROJECT “Carne y Arena” is so sprawl­ing it was in­stalled in an air­plane han­gar for Cannes.

Pa­trick T. Fal­lon For The Times

JO­CE­LYN MARTINEZ re­acts as she wears an Oculus Rift VR head­set to watch the “Alien: Covenant in Utero” ex­pe­ri­ence trailer in L.A.

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