MOVIES : Rooms With a View : Private theaters are another way to see a movie, but they start at $1 million and you still need the popcorn and a projectionist

Blaise Simpson is free-lance writer who likes the Cinerama Dome and popcorn with real butter

You decide to see a movie. So you drive across town to the theater, circle for half an hour looking for a parking space, then pay for the privilege. Then there's the $7 at the box office--once you've waited your turn in line. There's a crowd waiting for popcorn and soft drinks, and why is it that with tax the total always comes out to $5.02 or $6.03? (Can't they just round it off?) The only available seat is behind a dude whose heavy-metal mane blocks the screen; there's bubble gum on the floor and the girl on the left won't stop chattering--loudly--to her date.

It's enough to make you wish you had your own private theater.

That, in fact, is what many of the most powerful people in the motion picture industry have. They see the latest films in the privacy of their own screening rooms. They're the best-kept secret in town.

A partial list of the luminaries who have screening rooms in their homes includes movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Warren Beatty and Sylvester Stallone; such directors and producers as Steven Spielberg and Richard Zanuck and well-connected fat cats as diverse as Barry Diller, Marvin Davis, Frank Sinatra, Walter Annenberg, Aaron Spelling and Sidney Sheldon. While most studio chieftains have private screening rooms, they also have them at home. They include Sony Pictures' Peter Guber, Warner Bros.' Bob Daly, Universal's Sidney Sheinberg and Disney's Michael Eisner.

Not that you're likely to get invited. At a time when the chasm between haves and have-nots is getting more and more uncomfortable, it's not considered appropriate to flaunt the toys. "If you've got it, hide it," seems to be the phrase of the moment, and nothing is stealthier than the elite network that commands its very own private screenings.

Those who would speak to us wanted to make it perfectly clear that screening rooms are not mere status symbols. James Robinson, the chairman and CEO of Morgan Creek, the production company that brought you "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "White Sands," says the reasons he has his own at Morgan Creek are "convenience and accessibility--from my desk I'm there in 22 seconds. We use it to screen dailies and other people's work. For example, if we're looking for a director, we can use it to look at his work."

Home screening rooms make sense, he adds, "if you're in the business and you're really working in it. I don't think it's considered status in the business. Let me put it this way: I don't think Bob Daly would be impressed if I had a screening room. You don't impress people who have money, you only impress the ones who don't."

Wendy Goldberg, the wife of producer and former Fox chief executive Leonard Goldberg, agrees. "It seems like so many people have them. They're very popular because if they are working on a film, they can show it all the time. For instance, if Leonard's doing a television product, he would show it here. It isn't just an affectation."

Goldberg believes, however, that a certain etiquette should be observed when showing someone else's labor of love on your home screen. "The code of ethics should be that you never turn off a movie--even if you don't like it," she emphasizes. "We never turn anything off, it's kind of an unwritten rule."

Someone who once attended Barbra Streisand's screenings said he stopped going because she skipped reels. "She'd go from the first to the third or the second to the fifth--how can you watch a movie like that?" he sighed.

Streisand has two screening rooms. One is located on the second floor of a Mediterranean-style villa on her Malibu ranch. It has wood paneling, four big cushy sofas and several chairs done up in soft, natural fabrics. A screen glides out of the ceiling and there's a bar and kitchen area near the big projector in the back. The other room, at her house in Holmby Hills, is smaller and on a lower level, reached via a circular staircase. "It's done in red and black and there are jars of candy everywhere," adds our informant. "In between being super-healthy and eating only the best kind of food, she likes junk. So there are lots of jelly beans, Milk Duds, licorice and things like that."

Apparently, as far as movie munchies go, the rich are not so different from you and me. At "The Knoll," billionaire Marvin Davis' residence in Beverly Hills, the screening room is in a separate theater building. Although it is an oasis of blue velvet walls, cozy sofas and warm afghan throws, the food is down to earth. The Davises serve popcorn hot from an industrial-style machine--just like the one at your local theater. "You get your choice of buttered or unbuttered," says Barbara Davis, his wife. (And their butter is real.)

At Sylvester Stallone's art-filled home in Beverly Hills, the fare is more sumptuous. "He walks around with caviar in a one-pound can, eating it with a spoon--that's his snack during screenings," says one witness.

Ron Wilson, an interior designer who has decorated screening rooms for Michael Douglas and Kenny Rogers, says the at-home screening room "allows stars not to be bothered going out to the movies and it's another way of entertaining. It's wonderful to be able to say, 'Come to my home and see such and such a movie.' " Having one, Wilson adds, "is like getting on a private jet. It's a level of mad luxuriousness, an opulent moment."

The bigger the player, the better the screening rooms. As might be expected, record mogul and movie producer David Geffen is about to become the undisputed screening room king. At his beach house in Malibu, the screening room is graced by a large David Hockney painting of a swimming pool and white travertine marble tables--just the thing to put your feet up on.

But that's old news. Lately Geffen has acquired Jack Warner's former estate in Beverly Hills where he's renovating Warner's 13,600-square-foot house, a Georgian mansion straight out of "Gone With the Wind." Warner called the huge screening room within "The Library," because it had bookshelves filled with leather-bound volumes of every original script his studio had ever produced. It also featured Louis XV style painted screens of Chinese scenes and a projection booth that was opened by twisting a sculpted Buddha's head.

"It's the best screening room in the world," says antiques expert Rose Tarlow, who is supervising the renovation of the house for Geffen. "There is a wonderful bar off of it, and card rooms and a pool room next to that. The old equipment is great, particularly the screen, which is very unusual--it rises out of the floor automatically." Geffen will keep the extra-wide Cinemascope screen and the room will be decorated with art deco antiques and two vintage green leather airplane seats that Tarlow recently bought in New York.

Luxury on this level doesn't come cheap, and furnishings are just part of the story according to the experts who build private screening rooms. "Very few people are aware of the cost of a screening room project," explains Jeff Cooper, an architect whose company has built professional theaters for the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences as well as for private homes. "The range could be from $400,000 to $1 million. Right now, I'm doing three, for directors Ivan Reitman, Bob Zemeckis and Martin Scorsese. They'll all be between $1 million and $1.5 million."

What costs so much? Home screening rooms usually have the same kind of equipment used in professional movie theaters: 35-millimeter projectors (vintage Simplex or Century models are preferred) that weigh a quarter-ton or more, a screen that's often recessed in a wall or ceiling, electronic blackout shades on windows, banks of at least 12 top-quality speakers and extra-strength amplifiers to provide surround-sound, quiet air conditioning, indirect lighting with dimmer controls, and enough electronic wizardry to run everything with the flip of a switch.

Then there are options like 16mm; slide and video projectors; custom cabinetry to hide the equipment so that the theaters look like living rooms, and built-in kitchens, bathrooms and bars for entertaining. At his home in Malibu, Grammy and Emmy producer Pierre Cossette put his projection equipment into a room where Norton Simon, the previous owner of the house, kept his art collection. "I didn't have his art," Cossette explains, "so I decided to make a screening room. Mine is unique because it's got a 10-by-10 screen and I show laser (discs) on it. You're sitting there looking out at the ocean and I press a button and the screen comes out of the ceiling."

For sound-proofing purposes, screening rooms and projection booths are often constructed on separate foundations and walls are built double-thick. George Peper, whose Fort Hill Construction company has built 10 screening rooms for some of the top names in Hollywood over the last eight years, says the reason home screening rooms are costly is that they almost always are used for more than just screenings. "Every one of them is a shell inside a shell to keep the sound in, but also every one of them is part of a home, so having a double use is very important. It's a rarity to see a home screening room that's exclusively a theater. Most of the time the room is used for meetings and entertaining as well. It almost always opens onto a beautiful section of the lawn and generally has a place where you can sit and eat and look out at something pleasant. Very often you could go through a home and you wouldn't know which room was the theater."

That makes construction more difficult, but equipment alone is costly. Lee Anderson, a projection engineer at Paramount Pictures who moonlights as a screening room consultant, says, "By the time you get the screen and the blackout drapes and the lighting controls, you're up to about $115,000 to $120,000. I haven't worked on any inexpensive screening rooms."

Industry sources intimate that studios often foot the bills. "I think in most cases, the studios do equip and maintain and operate the home screening rooms for executives they're involved with," states one. "The studios finance most of these either outright or by compensating the executives."

A release print--a finished print of a movie that is sent to theaters--costs about $18,000, and because they are so expensive to make and so easy to copy or damage, studios are loathe to rent them except for commercial use. But they will loan prints to industry types, provided they prove they can take care of the film. To this end, all home screening rooms employ union projectionists to run the specialized equipment needed for 35mm film. Their fees can range from $170 to $250 for one screening. Charlie Ajar, a veteran of the exhibition side of the business, has designed rooms for MCA President Sidney Sheinberg and producer Lee Rich, among others. He holds a patent for his own invention, a lightweight 35mm "Universal" projector. But he says he still works as a projectionist from time to time. "It pays so much you can't beat it," he exclaims. "I can afford to go to dinner at the Palm."

"Everybody has their own projectionist. We use one person and two backups," says Angela Rich, who is married to Lee Rich. "You usually get the films through the studio you're with."

"Every studio has its own print department that controls the films," notes a secretary who arranges screenings for her boss. "With first-run films, there's usually an extra print. They have what they call the Bel-Air Circuit who get everything--it's chairmen and former studio chairmen--basically, very big titles. A lot of times we screen six films a weekend, two on Friday, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. Availability depends; there's often only one print that they rotate among all these people. You usually won't get a film on the opening weekend, but you get it right afterward. But sometimes the smaller studios have to wait six weeks after opening to pull a print."

The studios are reluctant to talk about the process by which they determine who gets to see what. Most calls by a reporter to the studios were not returned. One studio that did reply was Warner Bros. "This is not something we discuss," said Robert G. Friedman, president of advertising and publicity for Warners. "No, we aren't nervous. It's not nervousness, it's not about nervousness at all. Private screening rooms are just what they would seem to be--private."

Another executive, speaking anonymously, mentions the difficulty of getting films before they're released. "The studios don't waste prints because they're too expensive. Let me put it this way: If there's a 'Terminator' that's not in the movie houses yet, nobody is going to see it, because the studio is going to be very protective of it. Why would they want anyone to see it?" he explained. "But after that, if you're in a network, there are prints that can get bicycled (taken from one location to another). The Bel-Air Circuit is really just jargon for stars and other muckety-mucks that screen in their homes and that you accommodate, depending on how important they are to your studio."

"The greatest one for screenings is Sidney Sheinberg," notes Charlie Ajar. "He gets everything first--that's how powerful he is."

Leonard Rabinowitz, co-chairman of Carole Little Inc., a clothing firm, had a screening room built into his home in Beverly Hills after he started a development company, Cinema Line Films. "We work with the studios, so as a courtesy they let us borrow films," he says. "Between the two businesses I just don't have the time to always go out to theaters, so I often watch movies at home.

"But it's a big deal because you have to hire a union projectionist and you have to hire security to pick up the film and take it back," Rabinowitz says. "The easiest way to go to a movie is with your credit card--you just pick up your tickets at the theater. Even the studio heads who all have home screening rooms often go out to the theaters. I saw Jane and Michael Eisner at the movies last weekend."

Jerry Bruckheimer, who co-produced "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder," has made a conscious decision not to put a screening room in either of his homes. "To me, theaters and movies go together," he explains. "You don't get the same sense of a film at home. I think when you start sitting at home, you get kind of lazy and you don't get the fun of the popcorn and the soft drinks and the going out. You miss the buzz of the crowd and being able to hear the way they react to what they're seeing."

Even though we gripe about the crowds and the high price of tickets--consider the alternative: $7 seems like a real bargain versus $1.5 million and no lines.

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