Cannery Row's proposed IMAX theater offers a kinder, gentler, movie theater experience.
Thursday, September 23, 1999
An agitated resident recently asked McGillen, for instance, why in the devil he was building a 16-screen movie theater at Del Monte Center in Monterey. Another detractor who wanted to meet McGillen to discuss their differences showed up for the meeting at a Cannery Row site, all right--the proposed Cannery Row Marketplace site.
"The disappointing thing," says McGillen, "is that some people are against this project and they don''t know what it is."
While some--including the factually impaired--may lament that the Peninsula is headed for movie-theater overload, an IMAX theater offers an alternative experience to your run-of-the-mill flick.
For one, the screen is bigger: IMAX screens stand 60 feet tall and, unlike traditional screens, fills the viewer''s peripheral vision. The film itself is much wider than regular stock, and the projector is several times larger than the usual device.
Contentwise, IMAX films are generally family oriented, without sex and violence--between humans, anyway--with a typical run time of 45 minutes. Film titles, such as Island of the Sharks, Titanica, and Africa''s Elephant Kingdom, cover primarily nature and educational topics.
McGillen, a longtime Pebble Beach resident, is no stranger to the screen--the small screen, at least. He''s a former president of Lorimar Distribution, and even in retirement he still writes and produces a TV movie about once a year.
It was while he watched an IMAX movie in Vancouver about three years ago that McGillen asked himself: Why not build an IMAX theater in Monterey? So here he is today, his $9 million baby scheduled to break ground in February near the Monterey Plaza Hotel at the southern end of Cannery Row. With any luck, it''ll be open for business by April. Helping to melt the public resistance developers often face when trying to get their projects off the ground was McGillen''s decision to restore the deteriorating, 1940s-era Central Packing cannery building.
Large-format theaters have typically been associated with museums, such as the IMAX at Tech Museum in San Jose and the Houston IMAX inside the Museum of Natural Science. More recently, IMAX theaters have proliferated at amusement parks, like the Santa Clara Great America, and have cropped up in shopping malls around the world. Here in Monterey, McGillen''s IMAX will be housed in a small complex also featuring retail, conference, and office space.
Somewhat like the Hard Rock Cafe phenomena, what was once a unique film experience is now available at a location near you. California has 11 IMAX theaters, three of which are in Santa Clara County. Nevertheless, situating an IMAX in Monterey seems to be natural fit from both business and educational standpoints. Because the films are so expensive--around $25,000 to rent--one IMAX movie may run for several months in one location. Monterey''s tourist industry provides a constant influx of fresh wallets and eyeballs.
A theater offering educational and nature-oriented films also dovetails nicely with Monterey''s emphasis on marine science, fostered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other research and educational institutions. While the theater won''t be officially connected with the Aquarium, McGillen hopes to draw the same visitors to the theater. In keeping with Monterey''s marine theme, he says the theater will always show at least one ocean-oriented film--perhaps including two IMAX movies filmed in Monterey Bay.
"I hope when you go into the Aquarium," McGillen says, "it might be a good extension to see a film about the area."
Nevertheless, McGillen admits it''ll be difficult to make money as a stand-alone theater. He estimates the cost of building the theater complex at $8.5-9 million. "We''re not going into this to make a killing," McGillen says. "If we break even, we''ll consider this a success."
Overall, McGillen has generally enjoyed widespread support from the community: It''s hard to argue with the concept of a theater showing nature and educational films. While the city''s Planning Commission did hesitate in approving the theater due to parking and traffic concerns, the panel did unanimously approve the project. The theater also sailed through the Historic Preservation and the Architectural Review Committee without one negative vote.
The Planning Commission''s approval, however, has been challenged by the Sierra Club, which cited potential negative effects on traffic, water, parking, and historical resources. (The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the appeal Oct. 5.)
One unintended, yet nonetheless beneficial consequence of the IMAX that may have swayed commissioners is the theater''s potential to anchor Cannery Row''s neglected southern end. At last month''s Planning Commission meeting, Cannery Row business owner Nancy Stokes called the theater "a magnet to encourage pedestrian flow from the other end." Other merchants described bored customers who routinely ask what else there is to do on Cannery Row besides visiting the aquarium, shopping, and getting something to eat.
By and large, McGillen has been his own best public relation tool. By listening to the public--even walking door-to-door in New Monterey with blueprints in hand--he''s been fairly successful in eluding the controversy that inevitably follows any proposed development on Cannery Row these days. What seems to set McGillen apart from your typical "developer" is his seemingly sincere wish to simply do something good for the community.
"At the end of the day," says McGillen, "if we have a nice theater and it''s a positive contribution to the community, from a personal standpoint, that''s somewhat gratifying."