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Arts & Culture

Santikos Debuts New Immersive Theater Technology

Nathan Cone
Barco Escape uses three screens to envelop the viewer.

On Thursday, September 17, Santikos Theatres introduces a new technology to San Antonio moviegoers that promises to place the viewer in the middle of the experience. It’s called Barco Escape, and it’s a little like the old Cinerama, but digitally achieved without a curved screen. At a demonstration of the new technology last week, representatives for Santikos and Barco shared clips of everything from animated films to action sequences and a concert featuring Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

Barco Escape works by using the center screen of an existing movie theater auditorium, then adding two screens that jut out on either side at an angle, surrounding the audience. Three projectors are digitally synchronized to playback the program. This is a major advantage over the 60-year-old Cinerama technology, according to Barco Escape CEO Todd Hoddick.

“Trying to synchronize three [analog] projectors was very difficult,” Hoddick said of Cinerama after the demonstration. “The other big issue from a business perspective was that they absolutely had to film and shoot for Cinerama, which meant that all the cost of production was carried by whatever small footprint of theaters were capable of showing Cinerama. It’s why you see us building a retrofit solution,” he explained, referring to the comparative ease with which a standard movie theater can be converted into a Barco Escape experience.

With the conversion comes a slight loss of salable seats, according to Dawn Southard, VP of Marketing & Business Strategy for Santikos. Because some of the seats in a Barco Escape theater yield odd viewing angles, not all of the seats in an auditorium will be sold to ensure a prime viewing experience for the greatest number of people.

The demonstration of the technology yielded mixed results. A short animated film didn’t effectively utilize the side screens. An extreme sports video produced by Devin Super Tramp was full of energy, but also had too many shots of cameras staring up someone’s nose while bungee jumping (though that's no fault of the technology). An animatic action sequence set on the Golden Gate bridge was hard to follow as it careened from one screen to another. But where Barco Escape really shined was in the presentation of concert footage. Using over a dozen camera angles, a clip of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing “Anything Goes” in Brussels was exciting and really did live up to the promise of feeling like you’re part of the action on screen. The non-narrative nature of the concert setting lent itself well to the creative choices that were made in the presentation. I’d be happy to sit and enjoy the whole concert in a Barco Escape theater.

Whether Barco Escape or one of its descendants eventually takes over movie theaters nationwide remains to be seen. Todd Hoddick says that his company is in talks with Jerry Bruckheimer to use Barco Escape on at least two upcoming projects, one of which may involve fighter jets (*cough ‘Top Gun’ remake, *cough). Meanwhile, on Thursday, September 17, Santikos will debut “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” on their Barco Escape screen at the Silverado 16 theater. The film was not shot natively in the Barco Escape format, but was retrofitted to fit the three-screen format with additional CGI. For that first week, prices will be held at $10/ticket, but thereafter, Barco Escape pictures will cost moviegoers a whopping $18/ticket. But even as we’ve seen with 3D, if the right movie is onscreen, people will pay extra for the experience.

In order for something like Barco Escape to work, a few things need to happen: studios will have to decide if it’s worth their while to utilize this new format (20th Century Fox has already made a five-year commitment to produce at least two pictures per year); the screens will eventually need to be more seamlessly joined together so the ‘join points’ at the angles disappear from the viewer’s field of view; and finally, artists will really, really need a lot of practice and training. Because like 3D, it’s easy to do this bad. If the goal is to get audiences out of their homes and back into the theaters, Barco Escape will need more than just three screens. After all, no matter what kind of screen you're using, you still need a great movie to fill it.