Make believe it’s your living room

Times Staff Writer

The Landmark Theatre chain seems to have decided that fighting a two-front war, while it didn’t work out too well for the Germans, is its best strategy for thriving in an increasingly tumultuous movie business.

With its 12-screen flagship opening today at the Westside Pavilion, Landmark is clearly hoping to lure customers from the ArcLight, the Bridge and other upscale competitors. The complex offers reserved seats and the chance to bring your glass of wine with you in to the new Sofia Coppola or George Clooney movie.

But it is also designed to compete directly with your living room -- with your sofa, your flat screen and your ability to pause, rewind, turn on the lights or just give up on the movie idea altogether and switch over to “The Daily Show.”

As if to acknowledge how tough it’s becoming to drag people out of their houses for a night at the movies, with home-theater technology getting better and traffic getting worse, the Landmark includes a number of domestic architectural touches. The most striking are three “Living Room” theaters on the top floor that hold between 30 and 50 people each. They include sofas and side tables as well as overstuffed love seats and ottomans by the high-end French furniture company Ligne Roset.


As a piece of urban architecture, the Landmark is, well, no landmark. Designed by the Marina del Rey firm PleskowRael along with Pasadena’s F+A Architects, it holds 2,000 seats, filling in what had been the open-air portion of the Westside Pavilion’s 1991 annex. Both the original Pavilion and the expansion are the work of Jon Jerde; the older section, despite looking dated and a little grubby these days, represents a significant and inventive strain of retail postmodernism that largely got its start in Los Angeles.

The new facade along Pico, on the other hand, tries and largely fails for a kind of sophistication, aiming to bring its jumble of functions and materials into balance. The architects have re-clad the pedestrian bridge over Westwood Boulevard and the cylindrical tower that holds Barnes & Noble. They have also introduced a three-story picture window along Pico, framed rather awkwardly with a wide band of tan-colored stucco and offering views, from inside the theater, of Westwood and Century City.

Looking at the building from the street, you can quite clearly see the outline of one of the top-floor theaters -- a symbolic advertisement for what’s going on inside. The same architectural idea is repeated, maybe once or twice too often, inside the building, with the sloping roofs of several third-story auditoriums visible on the floor below. This creates a collection of leftover spaces -- not unlike those inside Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, oddly enough.

The sleek interior finishes in the common areas were selected, as Landmark puts it, with “the adult theatergoer in mind.” The concession stand is framed by a rosewood canopy. The wine bar -- by Dana Foley Design, a firm based, like the theater chain’s new owners, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, in Dallas -- features zebrawood and the sort of “candle fireplace” that these days shows up in cocktail lounges and urban lofts alike.

That mixture of Crate & Barrel modernism and Texas overkill is an improvement over the swirling carpet patterns and paper-thin drywall at your typical multiplex. And certain interior touches, like the wide stairs flanked by escalators and the tunnel-like hallways that lead to each auditorium, offer a bit of design sophistication to the moviegoing experience, which in recent decades has increasingly featured aesthetics as stale as the popcorn.

But in general the rich material palette is so strategically deployed that it becomes, frankly, a little unnerving. Movies, even some of the art house pictures that Landmark specializes in, are already focus-grouped and test-marketed to within an inch of their lives. Now the design of the places where we watch movies appears headed in the same direction. As a marketing idea carefully shaped and then sent hurtling aerodynamically toward a demographic target, the building might as well be shaped like an arrow.

All of which is a long way of saying that the Landmark, like all pieces of design in this country arranged to congratulate a certain free-spending slice of America on its own sense of taste, seems poised for huge crowds. Good thing it includes 3,350 parking spaces underneath -- a ridiculous number, when you think about it, in a city that should be trying to get people out of their private vehicles instead of encouraging six friends meeting up for a Friday night movie to arrive in six cars.

All of the Landmark’s larger auditoriums are pleasingly steep and feature extra-wide seats with cup holders that will accommodate your Chardonnay as well as a Big Gulp-sized soda. They are served by top-of-the-line Sony digital projectors, which construction crews were moving carefully into place last week.

But those rooms offer a variation on an architectural experience we all know well: the big movie auditorium with cushy seats and teeth-rattling sound. What’s new at the Landmark, at least for a first-run theater, are those Living Rooms -- not just for their furniture but for what they reveal about the industry’s attitude toward architectural space in a digital era.

In the years after World War II, as Hollywood grew more and more anxious about the rise of television, it responded by building theaters (including the 1963 Cinerama Dome, now part of the ArcLight) and developing widescreen film technology that emphasized everything an evening at home with Ed Sullivan couldn’t offer: scale, grandeur and a sense of public-ness. The Cinerama Dome was based on the geodesic designs of Buckminster Fuller. The industry wanted to convey the sense that even if television had captured the present, film very much owned the future.

This time around Hollywood is openly admitting the extent to which the public now associates the movie-watching experience with the comforts of home. It would be overstating the case to say that the building’s design flows directly from Landmark’s anxiety about where the movie business is headed. But despite the sweep of its larger auditoriums, the Dallas influence in its interior design and the sizable clamor that is sure to rise from its wine bar most weekends, the place has a certain smallness about it.