Long Live the Local Picture Show: Design Lessons from Local Theaters



Summer is movie theater season in these parts, where an eighty degree day that threatens to melt you like freezy-pop is only kept at bay by the cool, dark environs of an Art Haus. But according to several articles, individual ticket sales are on the decline, and a smaller slice of the population is keeping brick-and-mortar movie theaters pumping blood. See: a write-up in Variety, which salutes blockbusters like Jurassic Park and the non-stop superhero revivals, but ultimately notes that there has been a 10% drop in frequent moviegoers, defined as households who attend the movies at least once per month. The Atlantic takes a a deep dive into why millennials aren’t supporting their numbers, and how the sequel machine is doing.

The unleashing of various technologies destined to pull in hordes of Netflix-bound millennials also raises an eyebrow toward the industries lead foot. Premium features like RPX (holy eardrums), ultra wide screens, 3-D screenings and hand-poured cheese sauce titillate the senses but hike up the price of tickets to near $20 a pop, keeping revenue secure, but potentially de-democratizing the theater experience.

Is movie-going dying a slow death? I don’t think so—but the experience is, and needs to, continue to evolve. Parallel to books, records—even dining out—in today’s world, it’s possible to pipe in nearly any once-externalized experience to be had at home. But that doesn’t mean that it compares, or even fills the niche that the consumer desires.

As Jordan Seaberry says, “No chef prepares a dish with the hope that you’ll eat it out of a Styrofoam box, and no filmmaker hopes you’ll watch her movie while eating a burrito and playing with the dog.”

Some people want to see movies in their intended format.It’s like the difference between seeing a painting in a museum, and looking at a picture of the same painting on Google images or in a coffee table book,” adds Gus Spellman, horror-movie buff and cinephile. “

Others want to be distraction-free for a couple of hours. “Movies without distraction, reclining seats in some AMCs, an excuse to eat 3000 calories in popcorn,” says Lily Espinoza. “I find myself going to see superhero/sci-fi movies in theaters more than dramas for that Big Screen Experience TM.”


Photo courtesy of The Logan Theatre


As a design and architecture blog, we love to cut into how design influences behavior. It seemed to us that local theaters have valuable ideas as far as supporting an enduring emotional connection to the movie theater, and what we think is going to be how movie theaters survive as they compete against mobile devices, streaming services and the appeal of ice cream on the couch (guilty!). Jennifer Zacarias is Director of Marketing & Development at The Logan, a neighborhood stalwart renovated in 2012 to great success. She was generous enough to share some of her thoughts and experiences with us.

Some movie theaters feel as colorless as a mid-nineties Marriot hallway. Walk into The Music Box, however, and be certain that you couldn’t be anywhere else. The music box feels both dive-y and regal at the same time, distinctly vintage with its dim orangey lights, stepped seating and dramatic marquee.

HISTORY BREAK: The Paramount preceded The Logan, here shown in 1910 (left); The Round-Up was another Milwaukee-ave iteration here shown in 1936 (right). The Logan Theatre went through many changes over the years, reopening as The Rose Theatre, The New Dale Theatre, The Round Up Theatre and The Paramount before settling on The Logan Theatre.

A similar experience, albeit different, exists at The Logan, where the design inspiration is Art Deco, a style that pervaded the 20s and 30s with bold, glitzy choices and geometric shapes. The Logan—formerly The Paramount—was founded in 1915, but went through a significant rehab in 2012, taking it from a local theater to a full-service destination for the neighborhood. “There was plaster, a mural canvas, and then the marble that you see in the lobby today,” recalls Zacarias, who was heavily involved in the renovation process. The process of saving quality materials and finishes, while updating and restoring others is called adaptive reuse, and it is a cornerstone of the moss architectural philosophy.

The lounge area is peppered with vintage posters, the half-sheet sizes of which were found in a vault above the movie theater. The Logan team bartered for some full sheet sizes by trading in the half sheets to collectors. The furniture, a mix between custom-designed in the Art Deco vernacular and vintage pieces, works in perfect harmony with the mirrored bar that was designed around a restored relief (found in a storage unit in the building!), despite the modern flat screen TVs showing throwback flicks. The silver-streaked wallpaper was designed by a local artist. “I think we’ve provided that atmosphere, where we’re not a typical dive bar. We’re in a lounge,” says Zacarias speaking of regulars at Movie Trivia night, who treat the space with reverence. In a magnetic space, personality is key, and The Logan has established that in spades.

We’ve all walked past Bank of America Theater and Verizon Wireless Stadium and are sure it’s only a matter of time before Coca Cola Institute replaces the AMC with its carbonated claws. But for Pete’s Sake, give us a little break from the constant sponsors. People go to the movies to escape, and the design environs they are in should help them do that. Choosing a clear design intent and using thoughtful details—from lighting to finishes to color scheme—help hammer the escapism home.

Both The Logan and The Music Box sell movie theater candy (and we’ve eaten plenty) but the concessions area is so warmly lit and consistently designed, it blends right into the background so that more commanding design elements can take center stage. It’s no secret that scooping up a bag of popcorn and theater nachos in a typical theater can set you back a lot of cash, and there’s a reason for that, too. Zacarias explains that concessions are responsible for a lot of the movie theaters revenue. But a simple rebalancing act in theaters can have connotations to it.

“We don’t make money off of tickets—even with big blockbusters. We just don’t,” says Zacarias. “Between what goes to the studios and then amusement tax, we’re left with a few bucks. That’s why you see popcorn for $4,” she says. We want people to be able to have the full experience. We don’t want them to say ‘Oh, I’m going to the movies, but I can’t afford a popcorn. If an adult comes into The Logan, they can still get a ticket and an adult beverage or popcorn for under $20.”

There’s a reason people flock to the local watering hole, and it’s not the water! Not everyone feels like crossing town after work to get “the best cocktail” of all time–they’d rather pop next door for a quick bevvie at a place they can walk to. If you want to keep the neighborhood crowds coming in, make it hard to say no. The Logan does a fabulous job of this, with events practically every night of the week from Tuesday’s movie trivia to Monday’s standup open mic, to their popular Late Night at The Logan series that shows beloved classics complete with monthly genres. The Logan also has a bar worth its salt with custom drinks made to order, and boxed wine to take into the movie with you. These theaters always support street and neighborhood festivals, as well as cinema festivals that roll through town (including CIMM, CUFF and student showings); It’s pretty fabulous to see your friends and family’s art on display at a local theatre.

“We want to center our experiences on presentation without bringing too much technology into it,” says Zacarias. It’s true that many, if not all, local theaters don’t adopt the same state of the art technology as many big box theaters, although that doesn’t mean they can’t pack a punch visually and sonically over a home theater. The programming at The Logan is more centered on a curated experience that reflects what local audiences want to see, whether that’s the new Spiderman movie or a ghoulish fright fest for Halloween, Zacarias’ favorite event of the year. “We have two movies every night of the month. Everything from The Shining to 1920’s era silent film Nosferatu. “Nosferatu has become my favorite curated program because we bring in a live organist,” says Zacarias. Another favorite is Dark Side Over the Rainbow, where The Wizard of Oz is screened while Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is played. There are many fan theories that the two were intended to be paired. 

Zacarias emphasizes that even if there isn’t an event in the rotation, The Logan sees people use its standalone bar and concessions even when they aren’t in the mood for a film. “We have enough of our regulars that come in just for a bag of movie theater popcorn or a drink,” she says.

Local movie theaters are naturally a part of the community they serve. They are usually at street level, clustered in with all the other amenities, your book shops, your coffee houses and your Trader Joe’s. Their facades usually communicate something about their style and interior. Chain movie theaters, on the other hand, are usually sequestered in a mini mall with a parking garage and a spate of other mall-like accoutrements. I have a feeling these megaplexes rolled off the street to find larger homes when they wanted to show every single movie on a different screen at once. But with the advent of streaming, it seems like a lot of those air conditioned seats are going to waste. Come back to the curb, megaplexes, and maybe lose a screen or two; we promise you won’t miss it. A Screenrant article about why people don’t enjoy going to cinemas anymore throws the high cost of parking garages into the mix. And it’s true—because of their monstrous sizes and slight offset from society, most movie theaters have parking garages for the convenience of arriving, especially with small children. However, a movie theater set at street level and surrounded by street life might be closer to a train station, nixing the need for a car all together in many cases.


To keep up with bigger theaters in current times, smaller movie houses had to focus on making going to the movies a full night out with adult beverages, and a fancy lounge-style lobby, designed so that patrons would linger. Not only should a lobby be legible, as in, theater numbers and ticketing is all easy to find, they should be a little fun. A lobby is a way of transporting and heightening the visitors senses before they arrive at their film, which was used (and still is used) as a means of escape during The Great Depression and contemporary bad news.

Candle lighting, chandelier fixtures (if that’s the style you’re going for), lush textured carpeting in rich hues all set the scene, while high quality materials installed on the walls (think mosaic tile, marble or textiles) top it off. Bad lighting can take a room from photo shoot-worthy to horror movie in a matter of bulb changes, and the world of how lighting is used to influence human psyche and emotion is fascinating. To get people to relax and spend time in a space, natural light during the day is key (skylights, anyone?), whereas a sunset-drenched, diffused palette works better in the evening hours. Plants are rarely seen in movie theaters or their lobbies, but why not think trendy restaurant or cocktail lounge when designing a lobby—going boutique and bespoke over cookie cutter/austere. The possibilities are endless—a store in the lounge of a theater, a pop-up restaurant, a crackling fire and a craft cocktail. High fallutin spirits, fresh foliage, inviting fabrics and furniture—all feel welcoming any night of the week.

Any design obsessive will tell you that a well-designed package makes their heart flutter, as will any chef tell you that you eat with your eyes first. Candy wrappers that are made of thicker papers and dyed with luxe colors like deep fuchsia or pine green are all part of the experience of eating the candy itself. Since concessions are already pretty expensive at the theater, why not bring in a few more local snacks, gourmet chocolates and confections to complement the experience. Just remember to keep food bite-size and easily arranged (no slippery sandwiches or antipasti salads).

Whether or not 4DX will capture America’s heart by storm doesn’t matter so much as that everyone in the movie industry is trying to continue to level up our experience. Whether that’s megaplexes adapting to less people in seats with technology upgrades or local theaters trying to reflect, adapt and cater to their local communities routines and interests, the movie theater experience will keep changing in this world of streaming and binge watching.

“The biggest challenge for us is to try and continue to do unique, curated programming vs just finding a movie and putting it on the screen,” says Zacarias. “We’ll never get rid of mainstream programming because everybody wants to see the next marvel or DC movie. And this is their local theater, so we want to accommodate that, while also bringing that unique experience, whether that is Nosferatu with the live organist or working with Rev Brew to create a late night screening that is also a beer tapping,” she says. “That’s why I try to stay as local as possible. Rev brew. Pipeworks. Burnt City. We may have different products, but they are brought together to serve the community.” 

As a self-described “latch-key kid” that was “born and raised in the Chicago Park District,” Zacarias is also determined to bring local kids camps into the theater on field trips, to recreate the experience she had growing up. That’s why there were tons of happily yelping kids spilling out of the theater when I met Zacarias in The Logan’s swanky lounge. As a native Chicagoan, she is determined to make community events interesting and magnetic.

“I get a lot of e-mails asking, ‘I don’t know if you can do this, but….’ Zacarias says. “My response is usually, “if it’s not an open flame, we’ll give it a try. No flaming batons or anything.” 

All color photos of The Logan courtesy of The Logan Theatre. All Rights Reserved.