Seattle film lovers got their Hollywood ending.
The nonprofit film and education organization SIFF acquired the Cinerama from the estate of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, ending more than three years of uncertainty for the historic downtown Seattle movie theater.
SIFF announced the acquisition Thursday evening at the opening of the 49th Seattle International Film Festival. The crowd roared and gave a standing ovation as SIFF Executive Director Tom Mara revealed the news on stage.
Mara said SIFF is “profoundly honored to carry on Paul Allen’s legacy.”
Terms of the sale were not disclosed. SIFF said it plans to reopen the theater, which has been closed since February 2020, under a new name later this year and provide another necessary boost to downtown Seattle’s comeback from the pandemic.
The sale was in line with the wishes of Allen, who died in October 2018 at the age of 65. The billionaire philanthropist used his vast wealth to build and acquire an assortment of properties, including theaters, museums, professional sports teams and more.
Allen’s sister Jody Allen is the executor of his estate and for several years has been selling off pieces of it, ranging from superyachts to works of art to historic military aircraft, with all proceeds dedicated to philanthropy. In a statement Thursday, she said the estate was pleased with the Cinerama sale to SIFF.
“They are the ideal mission-driven organization to now shepherd this very special place, bring more film and movie lovers to downtown Seattle, and steward the venue and its role in our community for years to come,” Jody Allen said in a statement.
Rescued from demolition
The Cinerama, at 2100 4th Ave. in the Belltown neighborhood, originally opened in 1963, just a year after Seattle hosted the World’s Fair. As suburban multiplexes eventually gained in popularity, Cinerama’s ticket sales declined. By the late 1990s the single-screen theater had fallen into disrepair and was in danger of being demolished.
In 1998, Paul Allen stepped in to save a place that he loved as a child. After a multi-million-dollar renovation, the Cinerama reopened in 1999. The theater became a destination for blockbuster first-run movies, cult classics, and several film festivals, including the Science Fiction, Classic Films, Horror, and 70mm festivals, according to the Cinerama website.
In 2014, Allen poured more money into a major start-of-the-art technology upgrade with the installation of a digital laser projection system, improved sound, and fewer and wider seats for better legroom.
The Cinerama closed in February 2020 for repairs on what was called “normal wear and tear” at the time, with plans to reopen later in the year. A number of employees unexpectedly lost their jobs, and the closure became more permanent when COVID-19 dealt a crippling blow to businesses that relied on being together in public.
In May of that year, Allen’s Vulcan Inc. shuttered its Arts & Entertainment division, and the future of Cinerama and other properties looked bleak. Those included the still-closed Living Computers: Museum + Labs south of downtown. Vulcan had nothing new to share this week on that venue.
Amazon and Jeff Bezos were touted as potential Cinerama saviors, but the billionaire founder of the e-commerce giant never stepped up to grab the property a couple blocks from his headquarters campus.
By November of 2021, as more businesses reopened and more people were getting vaccinated, movie theaters were starting to see a box office rebound. And public interest in preserving the Cinerama was heating up in Seattle.
A petition to save the theater gained thousands of signatures, and SIFF expressed an interest, saying it would be “well-positioned to maximize the facility’s potential” but would need help funding such an investment.
‘Our downtown is being reawakened’
Mara, who spent more than 21 years as executive director of Seattle radio station KEXP, joined SIFF last August. He described his first day’s greeting at the organization like so:
“Hi Tom. Welcome to SIFF. There’s your desk, there’s the restroom. What are you going to do about Cinerama?”
He credits SIFF’s board and leadership with showing an interest and getting conversations going with the Allen estate. Mara also said board member David Cornfield — an early Microsoft vet, film producer and a champion of the city’s film culture — and his wife Linda stepped up with financing to help with the acquisition.
Cinerama will be the fourth venue run by SIFF. The nonprofit acquired the Uptown Theater and reopened it as SIFF Cinema Uptown in 2011 and the Egyptian Theater in Capitol Hill was acquired in 2014 as SIFF Cinema Egyptian. SIFF also runs its SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center, with a cinema that features Cinerama seats donated by Allen after the 2014 remodel.
SIFF Cinerama will not be the new name. Mara said the trademarked Cinerama name and the licensing agreement to use it goes away with the sale.
“We’re still gong to be honoring its history as the Cinerama,” Mara told GeekWire. “Now we’ll be turning our attention to working with the community to determine what her new name is going to be.”
Mara said he’s fortunate to be involved in another experience with ties to Allen, who previously donated $3.6 million to then-KCMU as it changed over to KEXP and grew into the station it is today.
“He loved music, he loved film,” Mara said. “For SIFF to be able to carry forward his legacy in this way, that’s a real honor. And we’re going to do that right.”
The acquisition and the eventual reopening is also a big boost for a downtown corridor struggling to regain its pre-pandemic footing. More companies, including Amazon, are starting to bring workers back from three years of remote and hybrid work styles.
Arts and culture have been listed as priorities, by Mayor Bruce Harrell and others, when it comes to what it will take to revive downtown. In a statement, Harrell called the deal “a match made for the big screen and for an activated, revitalized downtown.”
The Downtown Seattle Association said “this is another big move for downtown’s continued revitalization.”
Mara said the film industry is key to the creative economy and SIFF’s acquisition will be good for the city.
“I think it sends a signal that our downtown is becoming reawakened,” Mara said. “Cinerama reflects a greater vibrancy downtown. When people think about coming to the cinema, it has an amplifier effect. It’s not just coming to see a film, it’s also going to dinner beforehand, it’s getting a drink or two afterwards.”
In an age when streaming television series and movies across a variety of digital platforms has become the norm for many viewers, Mara is obviously still bullish on the cinema experience.
And there are few places that can match Cinerama when it comes to how that experience feels, whether it’s because of the projection and sound technology in the theater or the beloved chocolate popcorn in the lobby.
“This theater anchors SIFF. This is gonna be the flagship,” Mara said. “This is gonna be the place where film shimmers in our city.”