by Daniel Loria
Star Wars mania became a full-blown global phenomenon (once again) in late 2015. You might have heard about it: the latest entry in the series, The Force Awakens, launched in mid-December to a record-breaking run that culminated by toppling Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time in North America after only 20 days of release. Theater lobbies across the world were abuzz with anticipation from first-time fans to repeat visitors. At the recently opened Alamo Drafthouse in Omaha, Nebraska, however, The Force Awakens dominated much more than the conversation. Guests were treated to a fully immersive Star Wars-themed lobby as soon as they stepped into the new cinema: flashing lights, sound effects, and large-scale replicas of some of the franchise's most iconic sets helped create the illusion of a galaxy far, far away for local moviegoers.
"The theater owner, Tyler Calabrese, for Alamo Drafthouse, and the architect, Kip Coleman from Elevation Architects, came up with the original idea and then contacted us through Alamo Corporate to see if this was a feasible project and how we could design and build it," recounts Brad Woods, practice director at Dimensional Innovations, a Kansas-based design firm that has crafted custom-themed environments for high-profile clients from a number of industries. From the locker room of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets to Sprint's ad campaign in Times Square, Dimensional Innovations has specialized in creating an engaging public experience with their designs. Now you can add the Star Wars-themed lobby at the Alamo Drafthouse's Omaha location.
Details like lighting and paneling come into play, and there's even an Emperor's Throne, where visitors can take photos while doing their best impression of the evil emperor Palpatine. The true centerpiece of the project, however, is a 10-foot replica of the Death Star towering over the lobby. A push of a button triggers an LED system that recreates the laser blast from the original film, complete with sound effects that give the whole experience a truly immersive feel. Woods admits the laser touch proved to be the project's most difficult challenge. "Using DI's Innovations Lab, we were able to design and install a proprietary LED system that was programmable and resembled the laser from the Death Star in the movies. It all had to be synced with the sound system, as well as being serviceable from the manager's office. We also built mock-ups for the Death Star and illuminated interior wall panels."
The project was supposed to be under wraps-until an Internet spoiler foiled those plans. A picture of the 10-foot Death Star traveling down the highway hitched onto the back of a trailer was leaked online by an unsuspecting motorist-and honestly, who wouldn't post a picture of that sight after their morning commute?-drawing scores of views and comments as the image quickly went viral. "At first, we were worried that some Star Wars fanatics would follow the Death Star as it was being shipped to Omaha from our factory in Kansas City in hopes of finding its destination," remembers Woods.
Dimensional Innovations isn't new to the exhibition industry. The company has worked on projects for leading exhibitors AMC and Cinemark over the last 15 to 20 years, specializing in theater-concept design, interior design, fabrication, and installation. Their experience in exhibition includes tackling a range of projects, from setting up exterior and interior signage to creating immersive themed environments like the one in Omaha.
"It is all about creating a memorable experience for moviegoers, and we feel that this begins in the lobby," says Woods. "Our designs help keep patrons engaged and coming back to see movies and thoroughly enjoy their experience. Nowadays, theater owners have to go above and beyond ‘Let's go see a movie' and create that experience to get them off the couch and away from their 70-inch TVs. We collaborate with owners and their architects to help their theaters set themselves apart, which, in turn, adds to the owners' bottom line."