Seattle’s Cinerama movie theater to reopen under SIFF ownership

Closed since 2020, the historic venue will fire up the projectors later this year with a new name.

An image of the abandoned Cinerama from a street crosswalk

Opened in 1963, the Cinerama has been shuttered since 2020. SIFF has acquired the historic movie theater and will reopen it under a new name by the end of 2023. (Daniel Spils) 

In a development worthy of a feel-good blockbuster, news came Thursday night that Seattle’s beloved Cinerama movie theater — whose future has been uncertain since 2020 — will reopen by the end of the year.

At the opening-night festivities for the 49th Seattle International Film Festival (May 11 - 21), the SIFF organization announced it has acquired the Cinerama and will begin programming on the big screen by the end of 2023.

This marks the third historic Seattle movie theater scooped up by the nonprofit, after the Uptown in 2011 and the Egyptian in 2014. SIFF purchased the Cinerama from the estate of Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen under undisclosed terms. 

As for the big question on Cinerama fans’ minds: “We will have chocolate popcorn, absolutely,” SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett said in a phone call on the eve of the festival. “That was one of the first questions for all of us, too,” she added with a laugh. “The deal did not hinge on it, but it seemed important emotionally.”

The chocolate popcorn was just one of the many celebrated features of the Cinerama, which opened in 1963 as a showcase for the then-cutting-edge three-panel film format. Soon after, the Cinerama adapted to 70mm film, later adding 35mm capabilities and, more recently, digital laser projection. “The building is in great shape,” noted Barrett. “And the projectors — for 35mm, 70mm and Cinerama film — have all been maintained perfectly.”

Cinerama movie poster displays as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2022. The movie theater closed for ”the foreseeable future” in 2020. SIFF will reopen the theater in late 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

This is the second time in its 60-year history that the Cinerama has been saved from a dire fate. In the late 1990s, the movie house was struggling. At that point it was operated by Cineplex Odeon and owned by Rainier Properties, a division of Diamond Parking (which was considering turning it into a dinner theater or rock-climbing gym). 

Concerned Seattle cinephiles started a petition to save it, which prompted Paul Allen to step in and purchase the venue for $3.75 million. A lifelong sci-fi fan and movie buff, Allen had fond memories of seeing movies at the Cinerama in his youth, including 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. After $5 million in renovations, he reopened the venue in 1998.

The Cinerama underwent more updates, including installing bigger (though fewer) seats beneath the twinkling LED-starlit ceiling and adding massive surround-sound. But with Allen’s death in 2018, the fate of several of his treasured cultural assets, managed by his umbrella company Vulcan, was thrown into question. According to Allen’s last wishes, the Cinerama was to be sold with the proceeds directed toward philanthropy. 

In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, the Cinerama closed suddenly for unspecified renovations. As the COVID crisis settled over the city, the theater’s website noted it would be “closed for the foreseeable future.” 

On November 10, 2021, the Seattle Times editorial board published a plea entitled “Seattle needs a hero to save beloved Cinerama.” Two days later, SIFF put out a statement on the status of the Cinerama expressing support for preserving the theater but adding that “as a nonprofit organization reemerging from COVID closures, [SIFF] would need additional funding or investment to take on the operations of an additional theater.” 

SIFF has not specified how the funding or investment came about, but in a press release thanked its board, “especially David and Linda Cornfield,” for making the acquisition possible. 

An image of a person against a theater backdrop looking away from the camera, to the side
SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett. (Genna Martin/Crosscut) 

SIFF executive director Tom Mara, in prepared video remarks, hailed the revived Cinerama’s “flagship role” in “welcoming people back to downtown” after pandemic absences. “[The acquisition] enables us to keep this building in the lives of people who love film,” he said. “This is going to be the place where film shimmers in our city.”

The precise reopening date will depend on how long it takes to staff up, as well as little details such as “how many Junior Mints are in the freezer,” Barrett said. Still up for creative debate is how the glass cases on either side of the concession stand will be used, now that Allen’s collection of movie costumes and memorabilia is no longer on display. 

But one thing is for certain: The iconic name will no longer be on the marquee. 

The zig-zag letters spelling CINERAMA, each encased in an alternating blue or red rhombus, will disappear due to a copyright stipulation, Barrett said. (Vulcan had licensed the name from the original owner but did not own “Cinerama.” Upon sale the name reverts to the original owner.) The new name has yet to be decided. 

Might it be SIFFERAMA? Barrett declined to comment. 

But she did share one of her favorite Cinerama memories from the early 2000s, soon after she had been hired full-time by SIFF. Barrett was asked last-minute to get up in front of a sold-out festival crowd at the venue (which back then held 800 seats) to introduce a John Woo action movie. “That was the first thing I did for this festival,” she recalled. “Quite a trial by fire.”

Looking back on that moment, Barrett was still struck by “the power of what you can put on a screen — that film on that screen,” she said. “The right space for the right film. That’s what we’ll keep bringing to Seattle.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Vulcan did not own the name “Cinerama.”

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