On October 11, venerable Portland movie theater Cinema 21 will be getting a major expansion. Two new auditoriums, a new lobby, new options, and two new bathrooms will bring the theater—a fixture of Northwest Portland since 1926—into the 21st century. Everything that's great about Cinema 21 will remain—currently, as an independent, single-screen arthouse theater with a balcony, it's one of the best places to see movies in the city. It's just that in a month or so, there'll be significantly more of it.
The changes, according to longtime owner Tom Ranieri, will help Cinema 21 stay competitive in an increasingly difficult market, in part by significantly improving the theater's variety and flexibility. Yesterday afternoon I met up with the talkative, likeable Ranieri—who's been Cinema 21's owner since 1987—to get a look at how the ambitious renovations are progressing.
From what I saw, the new and improved Cinema 21 is going to be pretty great. What's now a single screen theater that can play 35mm and digital prints and seat 500 people will soon boast two additional screens. And while they'll be touching up the theater's current concession stand and doing some more-than-welcome renovations on the space's less-than-ideal bathrooms, the real changes are happening across the hall.
Ticket sales will continue to take place at Cinema 21's current box office, but soon—where you currently turn right to enter the auditorium—you'll be able to go left, heading down a wide set of stairs that open up into an entirely new, and considerably more welcoming, lobby. With exposed wooden beams and an new concession area, the new space will offer a place to hang out, drink beer and wine, and eat pizza. (Said pizza, in what's probably the best news I'll hear all week, will come from Escape from New York.)
Splitting off from that secondary lobby will be two big, new bathrooms, as well as the two new auditoriums. Both with offer gradually rising seating, digital projection, and screens about 11 feet high by 17 feet wide. The larger of the two (pictured above) will seat around 80; the smaller will seat 49.
In order to expand, Ranieri—along with his business partner Chuck Nakvasil, who's been part of Portland's independent movie exhibition business since the '60s—had to break through to an entirely seperate building. Originally built in 1927, the building next door to Cinema 21's current space was most recently a realty office, but has also been home to places like the Earth Tavern, where Ranieri remembers seeing the Ramones. (Sounds like it was a pretty good show). The upper floors of this second building—which stands at the corner of NW 21st and Irving—are currently used for parking, which means Ranieri's dealing with a slew of engineering and soundproofing challenges, helped out by an acoustic engineer and a whole lot of patience.
"It's not in my nature, but I've learned how to surf," Ranieri says of having to adjust his plans on the fly, butting up against city codes and the challenges that come from having a business that now straddles two buildings—and two landlords. When the new part of Cinema 21 opens up, it'll have been in the works for about three and a half years.
Here's an interesting addendum about This Modern Age We Find Ourselves In: Out of sight from customers, Cinema 21's two new auditoriums are joined by a shared area for the projectors. It's basically just a crawlspace, barely big enough to install, mainstain, and house the two projectors. Since the new projectors are digital, they can be programmed and operated from Cinema 21's main projector booth, but since there's no longer a need for projectionists in said booths, this space is far smaller than most theaters' booths. Welcome to the future! (And so long, weird cool upstairs parts of theaters.)
"What it allows us to do is have flexibility," Ranieri says of the changes. Now films that do well at Cinema 21 can keep playing there for longer instead of getting pushed out by newer releases—and it'll also let Ranieri branch out a bit in terms of the films can be booked at the theater. "It's a moving target, guessing what people will want to see in a communal space," Ranieri says—but with two more theaters, Cinema 21 will have better odds. Don't expect Trans4mers there next summer, but Cinema 21 will now have the chance—and the sway with distributors—to experiment with crossover pictures that smudge the lines between arthouse and commercial. Cinema 21 will continue hosting festivals and events, too, such as certain screenings of the NW Film Center's Portland International Film Festival, not to mention good ol' Hump.
The first movie I ever saw at Cinema 21—sitting in the front row of the balcony—was 2002's Spellbound; ever since, it's been one of my favorite places to see movies in Portland. The idea of it getting bigger—with more movies, longer run dates, the chance to be more competitive with other downtown and west side theaters, and Escape from New York pizza, right there, readily available to cram into my mouth—sounds pretty great. I'll be stoked to see how it all turns out next month.