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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seattle’s beloved Cinerama to reopen this winter under a new name

Pedestrians walk past the facade of the Cinerama Theater in Seattle on May 11, 2023.    (Daniel Kim/Seattle Times/TNS)
By Moira Macdonald Seattle Times The Seattle Times

It’s not called Cinerama any more. (Though it always will be, in my heart.) But the theater on the corner of Fourth and Lenora – the one with the giant screen and the chocolate popcorn and the space-age graphics – is finally back.

Now owned and operated by SIFF and called SIFF Cinema Downtown, it will reopen for business Dec. 14, with the family-friendly adventure “Wonka,” directed by Paul King (who made the excellent “Paddington” films) and starring Timothée Chalamet. Subsequent bookings will be a mix of big-studio releases, specialty festivals and events, and first-run art house fare. All seats will be reserved, and in-person ticket prices (all fees included) will be $20 adults, $18.50 students/seniors, $16.50 SIFF members and $14.50 children 12 and under. Advance tickets purchased online will be 50 cents less. Tickets for “Wonka” and subsequent films are not yet available for sale, but will be “soon,” according to SIFF.

“Looking at films coming out, looking at when we were hoping [the theater] would be open, ‘Wonka’ jumped out at us,” said SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett, in a telephone interview earlier this week. She loved the idea of opening with a family film, so people could “bring their kids to this beautiful movie palace to see a film. It felt optimistic and hopeful.”

It’s been a long wait for those of us who love the Theater Formerly Known as Cinerama, which has been closed for nearly four years. (The name change was due to copyright issues: “Cinerama” is a trademarked name whose rights did not transfer to a new owner.) The last of downtown’s single-screen movie theaters, Cinerama opened in 1963 as a showcase for three-strip Cinerama technology; a big-screen format that relatively quickly fell out of favor, necessitating a pivot to 70mm and 35mm exhibition. The decaying theater was rescued in 1998 by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, a movie buff, who bought the theater, restored it and reopened it, making it a beloved gathering place for film lovers. Allen died in 2018, and the Seattle Cinerama closed in early 2020, with many wondering if it would ever reopen.

SIFF purchased the theater from Paul Allen’s estate earlier this year, and is reopening it with the assistance of funds from the Seattle City Council and the Metropolitan King County Council. The organization is looking to hire about 20 new staffers for the theater. Braeden Wiebe, chair of the recently formed SIFF Cinema Workers Union, confirmed that SIFF is currently in negotiations with the union (though he noted that some important demands had not yet been addressed), and that the 20 new positions are expected to be union-eligible.

Barrett said she’s eager to begin scheduling films for the new theater, with a 70mm festival tentatively planned for next summer. SIFF Cinema Downtown will also host films for the 50th anniversary edition of SIFF next spring.

And, in answer to the question everyone has: yes, the renowned chocolate popcorn will be back. The theater will also be offering a signature beer and wine (from local providers Black Raven Brewing and Alexandria Nicole Cellars, respectively) and a few snacks as well as the traditional popcorn and candy.

It’ll be hard to get used to the new name – Barrett noted that even among SIFF staff, everyone still struggles not to call it Cinerama. But she likes how the new moniker mirrors other SIFF entities (i.e. SIFF Cinema Uptown), and how the name itself signals optimism. People need to grieve the Cinerama name, she said, but can also embrace the new one and its hope for revitalization. “Every time we say SIFF Cinema Downtown,” she said, “it’s reminding us that downtown is an exciting place to be.”