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The Arclight Comes to La Jolla

Before I start, a quick note to any Arclight folks who might be reading. If you scroll all the way to the end I've added a bullet-list of suggestions for tweaking/improving the experience. Nothing major, but I thought I'd mention it up front in case you look at this post and go, yikes, ain't gonna read that!

The long wait is over. The Arclight La Jolla has opened!

I first heard a rumor two years ago that the Arclight Cinemas chain was going to be opening a theatre in its first market outside its homebase of Los Angeles, and that they'd picked the UTC mall near La Jolla as their new site. Considering how really really bad the movie theatre scene is in San Diego County, this was great news.

And then came the wait. Month after month after month. All sorts of renovations underway at the UTC Mall, apparently to the tune of $100 million or more. It has long needed it, the mall was getting kind of old-fashioned. It still will be after the facelift, in my opinion, but I'm not a shopper, so I don't really care about the mall. What I care about is movies, and the fact that San Diego for a long time has not had any decent moviegoing experiences.

Well, those days are over. The good news is, Arclight has delivered. San Diego has a good place to go to movies again.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla
The Arclight now dominates the otherwise rather boring University Towne Centre Mall in San Diego.

I've been going to Arclight movies up in LA a few times a year just because the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood is such a great place to see a movie. As a business, Arclight positions itself as a high-end, serious film experience kind of place, no b.s., no advertising, the real deal. Compared to noisy, dumb-as-a-fencepost AMC Theatres, which in my opinion exists solely to shovel massive doses of popcorn and high-fructose corn syrup into you while you sit in the dark, Arclight is Movie Nirvana.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla
Climbing the second set of escalators. The workmen had set them up wrong; note the up direction was left, down direction was to the right. When I came out of the theatre later, they'd switched 'em.

I noticed earlier this week that ArcLight had opened up a detail page for the new La Jolla cinema on its website, including, surprise surprise, showtimes starting Friday, November 2nd. Oddly, it showed that there were going to be twenty-one (21) separate screenings for the new Denzel Washington airplane-and-drinking-don't-mix drama, Flight. I was skeptical. 21 screenings? Every half hour from 9am to midnight? Seemed . . . a bit much. But I thought, what the heck, gotta check it out, so I went and ordered a ticket online for the 9am show. I figured, very first screening, first day it's open, half of their systems probably aren't functioning properly, yet, sounds perfect! What could go wrong?

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla
The twenty-one screenings, one every half-hour, for FLIGHT on Friday Nov 2. Seemed a bit much. Was it for real?

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla
The seating chart for the 9am show. Hmm, a rather tiny auditorium, isn't it?

When I arrived at like 8:50am (a fine time to go to a movie, don't you think?) it was clear the mall is still undergoing a lot of construction and renovation. In fact the parking lot was all construction worker pickup trucks and cranes and forklifts. The ArcLight looms over the northwest parking lot at the mall. Architecturally, it fits right in with the bland, concrete, lifeless, rather depressing style that is all the rage a mile away at UCSD. In fact the architectural design throughout is strictly business: no frills, nothing fancy, kind of intimidating, what with the place being above the rest of the mall, requiring two sets of stairs or escalators to get to the lobby. From the parking lot it's just these conjoined concrete boxes: no humanity, nothing organic, no curves, cold as ice.

The lobby is like a miniature version of the other ArcLights. The ArcLight Hollywood has a vastness that is impressive, in a Grand Central Station way, with its giant digital wall of showtimes and looming clock towering over crowds of people running every which way. It is a space, a portal, a terminal, full of people, on their way to or just back from being transported to exotic destinations. The La Jolla lobby has none of that yet, and the scale is so different I can't imagine bustling crowds here yet. It's strictly functional. Reminded me of the Arclight Beach Cities in El Segundo, but even that is bigger than this. Speaking of architecture, I was also struck by the smallness of the terrace area at the entranceway high above everything else at UTC Mall. It's not a very large area. I was trying to imagine the kinds of crowds and lines that used to show up at this mall back in the late 1980s when Mann Theatres had their cinema here. Huge lines, down the sidewalk, into the parking lot choked with cars trying to find spots or trying to leave. Since the entrance to this new theatre is so high up and there's so little room up there and on the way up, I'm imagining big lines are going to have to be formed down below at parking lot level. It's going to be weird. Maybe the fact that ArcLight has a) reserved seats and b) a fully-functioning online ticketing system, complete with mobile app, those kinds of problems will never pop up. One can hope.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla ad
The full-page advertisement Arclight ran in the La Jolla Light newspaper. I tell ya, San Diegans have no idea what has arrived.

I went in, and an Arclight staffer greeted me in the lobby. Kinda weird showing up at 8:50am for a film, lemme tell you. I must have been the first customer in the building. Nobody else around. She asked if I wanted any concessions, and than pointed to me to the concession stand (compared to the feeding-troughs at AMC and Edwards Mira Mesa, Arclight's concessions stand is rather modest in size; fine with me, I'm there for the movie!). I got a popcorn and a bottled water. No surprise: the water cost $4.50, and for 16.9 ounces that is even more of a ripoff than other San Diego theatres who at least give you a 20oz bottle. There is an annoying trend with exhibitors over the past year or two: raise prices and reduce quantities. (Of course, this is nothing compared to the truly insane pricing at the Cinepolis Del Mar, the place where they treat you like the permanently-seated passengers aboard the Axiom spaceship from the Pixar movie Wall-E).

I'm told the 9am show of FLIGHT will be in auditorium 3, so I head off to find it. It's down a hallway and then down another. The place is empty. Lots of doors lead to numbered auditoriums throughout the hall. The air is filled with fumes of fresh paint, fresh carpet, fresh fixtures, as if the construction workers just finished building the place an hour earlier. I get to auditorium 3 and go in. It's tiny. There are two Arclight employees sitting in chairs inside -- the auditorium house lights are on, and there's an image on the screen. Turns out they're testing the projector.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla
The electronic signs outside every auditorium showed the same thing: Power. At least they work. They just haven't been set to reflect what movies are showing in each yet.

That online seating chart for Auditorium 3 did not lie. It just didn't sufficiently convey how really TINY this auditorium was. From Arclight standards, this is like being sent to the detention center or something. Surely there must be a mistake. One of the Arclight guys wanted to shoo me away and have me come back in a few minutes, but I wasn't having any of that -- I told 'em to just go ahead and calibrate and adjust the projector, I'll watch! And then we got to talking. One of the guys, Richard, pointed out that this is a rather unique auditorium, new for Arclight. There's no projection booth. I looked up in the back and sure enough, nothing. Instead there's a box, a big box, bolted to the ceiling at the far back. You could hear the projector whirring away in there. Faintly, but if you own any sort of projector, you know what they sound like.

The Arclight guy explained that this is a new innovation with Arclight, a way to save money by not having to have a manned booth -- reduction in building space, headcount, etc. Then I noticed one of the guys had an iPhone and was using an app to remotely control the projector. Very cool.

But the auditorium really was a shocker. Just so small. Not quite as bad as the real nightmare, Auditorium No. 5 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas, which if I discover the movie I paid to see is being shown only in that auditorium, will cause me to walk back to the box office and get my money back. But still this was an auditorium I'd want to avoid, just too small for my tastes. I was expecting BIG. I thought, you know what, this is no way to get acquianted with the new Arclight. We've not been properly introduced yet. Auditorium 3 is like meeting the bottom of someone's left foot, instead of the whole person. I wanted to see more. Perhaps if I came back again, and we can try this again…

I asked Richard if there were any bigger auditoriums here at the Arclight. He said, sure, there were, and he offered to show them to me. Absolutely! So we went out and I got to see another one. It was larger but still not that impressive. Perhaps he picked up on that. He mentioned there's Auditorium 7, with the special wide screen. He thought I might like that. I said, let's go! So we went to Auditorium 7.

We arrived at the little door for Number 7. Outside there was a sign:

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
Now we're talkin'.

Richard took me inside. There's a long dark narrow corridor after you pass through the doorway. We walked down the corridor.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The first part of the corridor.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The second part.

The corridor is a giant L. Just from the length of the corridor, relative to Cinema 3, I knew this was not going to be Cinema 3 all over again. And then we entered Cinema 7.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The screen.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The stadium.

Okay. THIS is what I am talking about. THIS is what San Diego has missed for years and years and years. FINALLY. A screen that's floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Period. And curved. Gigantic. Richard told me the sound was awesome in here, they put in all kinds of surround speakers, which he pointed to all over the walls. Cool. I immediately asked Richard, Okay when is the first screening of FLIGHT in THIS auditorium? He said, 11am. I said, DONE! Can I switch my ticket? I'll come back. He said, sure. I asked him what kind of projector were they using here? He said the whole complex was Christie projectors. 4K. He said FLIGHT was being shown in 2K because that is how the studio prepared it. One unusual element of Cinema 7 was the very large glass window through which that monster Christie projector did its thing. Much larger than normal projection booths. Had something to do with the super-wide screen aspect of the room. Fine with me!

So I got the ticket switch taken care of, left, and came back at 11.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The seating chart for Cinema 7. In reality the rows of seats are curved.

Cinema 7 at 11am was busier this time. There was an usher, a nice lady who'd just started as an employee at Arclight. There were three technician guys, I think they were vendors who had installed the screen, and there was the usher, and there was me. In a 200+ seat auditorium. There was also a big test image on the screen:

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The test image.

Chit chatted with the usher for a while, screen got set up, and then she went down to the front to do her thing. At Arclight, the ushers personally introduce themselves and the film before each screening. It's classy. She did a great job. For an audience of one. The three technical guys cheered her on on the side. I would be the very first customer in Cinema 7 seeing apparently the very first screening they'd ever done. Cool. The lights dimmed. Three trailers.

Arclight Cinemas La Jolla Cinema 7 Sign
The usher makes her intro statement to an audience of one.

Arclight then showed a 5-minute cast/crew interview that had been recorded at some live event recently. The moderator of the panel announced that Denzel Washington couldn't be there. I was thinking, uh, this is not going well already. And it didn't. I get what Arclight was trying to do, but this clip didn't offer much value, particularly because it had the typical fingerprints of the studio all over it: one of the panelists would say something, and then there'd be a cut to a brief clip from the trailer of the film, and then back to the video of cast and crew talking. Talk, then trailer clip, more talk, another trailer clip, on and on for a couple minutes. This is the kind of thing one expects to see on the E! Entertainment channel or something, or on the Supplemental/Making Of DVD for a movie. It's tolerable there, but just in the way here. I would rather Arclight get its own crew, go film their own interviews with the cast/crew, and skip the trailer altogether, and also probably not show any of this until the movie is over. I like Arclight trying to add more value to the experience, but this needs a bit more thinking before it's ready for prime time.

Finally the movie started. The projected image was fantastic. The sound was crisp and loud. Everything was just right. Oh, except for the DRILLING and HAMMERING and SAWING and BANGING noises that would randomly appear during the movie! Either somewhere nearby in the theatre there's construction work going on, or, downstairs, where I believe a huge fashion store is going in called Forever 21, wherever it was, it was crazy and really disruptive and not like Arclight at all. However, all is forgiven. I figured opening day of what Arclight called a soft launch was bound to have some rough edges and a few noisy bumps and surprises, so I didn't mind.

One thing I did mind. The FUMES. I felt like I was high as a kite by the end of the movie. I had been breathing who knows what VOC's and noxious fumes for two hours. Who knows what kind of health hazards those fumes pose. Brand new seats, brand new carpet, brand new screen (and I know from experience, screens stink -- I have a 12-ft screen at home, and it STANK something fierce for a month when we put it up; this thing made my home screen look like an iPhone). At first you think, ah, new car smell. But after a few minutes it starts to get really noticeable. By the time I left the movie, all I could smell was those fumes. Even when I got outside, and back in the car, with the windows rolled down -- those fumes. An hour later -- those fumes. They tend to stick with you. Hours later they're gone but the memory isn't. I wish Arclight would turn on the HVAC super high and just flush the air out of the building. But realistically, it's prolly gonna a take a month.

Some Final Observations and Recommendations.

1. The seats don't lean back. I wish they did, like AMC Fashion Valley 18's. My neck and upper back was sore after seeing FLIGHT. For superlong movies, like the upcoming HOBBIT, it's going to be painful having to sit upright. Imagine being on an airplane flight for hours where you can't adjust the seat.

2. Displaying name and EMAIL ADDRESS at the concession stand. I noticed that if you give your Arclight membership card to the person at the counter, when they run it through their machine, the little screen that's facing the customer displays the customer name and EMAIL ADDRESS. Yikes. This is a serious privacy issue. Serious. You don't want a long line of customers seeing the name and email address of the person ahead of them, for crying out loud. Gotta get rid of that stuff. Talk to your vendor, get the software updated, get it fixed, end of story.

3. I was really surprised that Arclight had never reached out to me personally prior to this day. I don't mean me personally as in only me, but me as in someone among all those locally in town who could have / should have shown up on a simple database query: who's local? Instead, I did all the work to find out this place was open today. And yet, I've been a member for many years, I am registered with an address in La Jolla, California. If they checked their records they'd see that every few months I make a trek up to the Hollywood Arclight or one of the other LA ones to catch a flick, especially if it is a special one-time, one-screening event. I've been doing this for years. And yet no marketing messages from Arclight, no invites to a local customer saying hey, we noticed you're in La Jolla, do you know about our new cinema here in town, here's a special treat for loyal Arclight members only, etc, etc. Something. Anything.

4. Along those lines, I was surprised to hear there was a special event last night, Thursday night, with 500 people or something. Some gala grand opening or something. Oh? Again, being a very longtime Arclight member who lives a few miles away, why didn't I know about it? Why keep me out? Who was there? Do those people pay to see over 100 movies a year? (Doing my best Rodney Dangerfield impression: What am I, chopped liver?)

5. I would have liked to have gotten a tour of the projection booths, particularly Cinema 7. If you've ever been on a cruise ship, and believe me, being in a large sprawling multiplex cinema like Arclight is not unlike being on a cruise ship -- long halls, totally isolated from the world -- you learn little things like the captain of the ship will invite small parties to get a tour of the engine room and sometimes even the bridge, escorted and curated by the Chief Engineer. For those who love to geek out on the tech behind these modern marvels, such experiences create long-lasting memories and fuel world-of-mouth and spread goodwill in the community. I wish Arclight would offer such a Tech Tour. Show us the Christie! Show us how it works! Show us behind the screen! Let us see the gigantic speakers! Show us the iPhone app that remote-controls the projection! This is cool stuff! Let us record videos of it! Guess what, we'll put it on Facebook and Twitter and our blogs! And hey, there's tech here that Engadget and Techcrunch would probably love to write about!

6. The Arclight website should show what auditorium is showing what at what time. I know there are good reasons for not doing this -- if word gets out that Cinema 7 is the cool one to go to, everyone buys tickets only for that one -- but in the long run, with a large population of customers, it'll even out. But for the customers who really care, like me, about which auditorium they're seeing their movie in, this is a must-have.

Bottom line? Congratulations, Arclight, you nailed it. San Diego: come and get it!

I can't wait to come back and see another movie here. Especially looking forward to THE HOBBIT in Cinema 7. That will be something.

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