On Thursday afternoon, leaders from Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) and across the region gathered to officially cut the ribbon and welcome visitors to SIFF Cinema Downtown, the theater formerly known as Cinerama. Local politicians, business leaders, and film lovers gathered in the lobby of the historic theater and waited for their first taste of the famous chocolate popcorn since the theater closed in 2020.
The Seattle Cinerama Theater, at the corner of Lenora and 4th Avenue, opened in 1963. Originally part of an elite group of theaters across the country, it is one of only three remaining Cinerama theaters. Built for the latest 70mm technology, the three projectors and 97-foot curved screen made it a premier destination for film makers and film lovers alike. Because the 70mm film is twice as large as 35mm film, the picture is bigger, brighter, and more vivid.
The theater has been through its ups and downs over the years and was almost turned into a dinner theater in the 1990s. Luckily, Paul Allen, Microsoft founder and philanthropist, was also a film lover. He saved the theater and upgraded accessibility and state-of-the-art technology.
Tom Mara, SIFF Executive Director, said, “I am particularly appreciative of Paul Allen for stepping up to save Cinerama and I feel a strong responsibility to continue that legacy.” He explained that this has been a huge effort of staff, government, and community. And his most recent round of appreciation started with District 7 City Councilmember Andrew Lewis. Mara recalls Lewis reaching out to him before he had even started his role at SIFF. He said, “Andrew is a real movie fan and played a key role in this acquisition. He had a hope and a dream and an expectation to figure out a way to ensure this theater remains in our lives.”
When Cinerama closed for a planned renovation in early 2020, it was unable to reopen because of the pandemic. And some Seattleites, understanding the costs associated with operating a luxury movie theater in the age of streaming video, feared it may not ever reopen. Lewis recognized that the value of the theater was much greater than the land it was occupying. “It could have been a loss to history and to the recovery of the neighborhood,” Lewis said. To some extent, he says it is now owned by the people, due to the combined efforts of the community, Mayor’s office, city council, county council, and local donors. “I am really proud to have been a part of the history of this really important place.”
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles highlighted the importance of the arts. “I love this theater, the history, the tradition,” she said. Her favorite Cinerama moment was seeing the U.S. premiere of the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. She also mentioned the recent success of the King County Doors Open program that will benefit arts, culture, science, heritage, and film.
Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson celebrated the theater in relation to Seattle’s film economy. “You saved an icon! That will bring tremendous joy and help activate downtown.” In 2022, Nelson championed the legislation to create the Seattle Film Commission and she called the re-opening of this theater the perfect ending to the year.
Chris Swenson, the Film Program Manager for Seattle Office of Economic Development, recognizes the unique history of the theater and welcomes its return. “A vibrant and healthy landmark theater, reimagined with access and diversity, has the potential to elevate moviegoing for community, cultural, and industry events, and become a pillar for the cultural revitalization of Downtown Seattle.”
After all of the fanfare, gratitude, and chocolate popcorn, it was time to cut the ribbon and declare the new SIFF Cinema Downtown open. The official honor went to local film producer, Mel Eslyn.
Wonka, which was coincidentally the code name for the top-secret acquisition, was the first scheduled film and will be playing until mid-January. In addition to new releases and limited showings of classic films, the new SIFF Cinema Downtown will host film festivals in the new year. “We have a lot of work to do and I am tickled to be in this position,” Mara said. Other priorities include expanding their commitment to education and developing their role in the Seattle film ecosystem. “SIFF can champion vibrancy in the community and the economy.” Movie times and more information can be found at www.siff.net.