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The future of cinema is almost here – and it looks like the Star Wars prequels

(Image credit: Ōma)

The thought of going to the movie theater right now probably feels alien to you, in this year of lockdowns and delayed cinema releases. 

Still: look at the image above. Imagine what it'd be like to see a film in a cinema that looks like that – and imagine yourself watching a better film than Tron Legacy. 

The Ōma Cinema, as this theater concept is called, is becoming a reality. It's the work of veteran architect Pierre Chican, who's previously designed cinemas like the UGC Les Halles and UGC Bercy in Paris, as well as the first IMAX laser cinema in France. And yes, the circular pod-like seating arrangement does look a lot like the Galactic Senate from the Star Wars prequel movies, probably because they're drawing from a similar point of inspiration: namely classic Italian theaters and opera houses. 

The Ōma Cinema is laid out this way to bring attendees closer to the screen, and gives everyone who bought a ticket an even viewing experience. 

"This concept of movie theater creates a cinematographic experience at the same time intimate, spectacular and immersive, where every seat in the house is the best seat in the house," says Chican on the project's official website. This isn't just a pie-in-the-sky concept, either – the first Ōma cinema is opening in an as-yet-undisclosed venue in Paris in the second half of 2021, in collaboration with one of Europe's leading theater exhibitors. 

We spoke to Ōma co-founder Nicolas Chican and film finance specialist and consultant Jean-Marie Dura about the project. From a technical standpoint, one of its most interesting promises is a 'distortion-free' image, which is apparently achieved based on how the projector is placed. 

"The Ōma design is absolutely agnostic in terms of [its] projection system as well as [its] sound system. It works with all the technology that is in the market right now and will be in the market in the future. The fact that the Ōma design delivers no distortion is that because it's very vertical. We are able to place the projector, whatever it may be, whatever the exhibitor chooses to take as a projector, we put it right in the center of the screen. The projector is situated right in the centre. 

"It can be in the booth, in a normal booth or it can be a different boothless system. We can arrange for that. And so, it's that the position of the projector delivers the zero-distortion image."

This apparently makes for a better visual experience than the current method of placing the projector at the back of the cinema. Work is still ongoing on the audio front, too, but the intention is for the seating pods to have speakers built into the balconies. "It will be tailored so that each balcony has got a perfect sound. But the sound will be clearer and will be closer to the spectator."

Why does the cinema experience need improving?

We ask what the starting point was for designing the Ōma Cinema. "The starting point was, [Pierre] always wanted to not only do something different, but something different with a style. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of bringing something new and visibly better for the cinema-goer. Because he is like the rest of us – a film buff. 

"And so his main idea – the first seed of the inspiration – was how could he get the cinema-goer closer to the screen? And by bringing the spectator closer to the screen, it was making it possible for the spectator to be [closer to] the action, right? More immersive."

The intention isn't just to open the Ōma Cinema in one or two high-end locations, though. One of the interesting parts of the pitch is that the Ōma experience, including the pod seating layout, can be retrofit into existing venues. We ask Dura how that might work.

"We are really willing to work with all the cinema providers and cinema operators around the world. We think we've got great, great partners in the cinema exhibition and suppliers that we can work with. But it is absolutely true that we see a great potential in refurbishing, refitting, retrofitting, as we say in the industry, to retrofitting a certain number of theaters into Ōma cinemas.

"We are very flexible. Every Ōma cinema will be unique in itself. There is not a 'one size fits all' in terms of Ōma cinema. It will always be some kind of very exclusive, high-end theatre that we will deliver in partnership with the cinema operators we'll be working with and with the cinema suppliers."

The vertical seating arrangements mean it's a better fit for larger venues, though. "We are working with some cinema providers about retrofitting some Premium Large Format theatres to retrofit into Ōma cinemas. All we need [is] a certain height – preferably 11 metres high or 13 meters high. We can do less than that but that will be more baby Ōma-cinema-ish. So the idea is to go for some bigger venues."

(Image credit: Ōma)

Cinema in the age of social distancing

Obviously, when theaters reopen, the immediate future will be uncertain – in a time of social distancing, there will be a new normal when it comes to the seating arrangements of the cinema as we're used to them. The Ōma Cinema was obviously created long before coronavirus changed the world, but at first glance, the balcony layout does seem like a good fit for the age we're entering.

"The Ōma cinema was designed two years ago, if not three years ago," Dura says. "When it first came to life in Pierre Chican's mind, of course, the coronavirus wasn't around. And that was definitely not what he had in mind. But it's absolutely true to say that the Ōma cinema, because of the multiple balconies, it creates a more socially distanced viewing experience in the cinema. 

"By that I mean, you're still at the big screen, you're still around with a lot of people – which is part of the magic of the cinema – but because you go with your own family or set of friends in your balcony with different access [points], it makes for a more a COVID-19-compliant theater."

That aside, we're just curious to experience a film in a theater that looks like this – even from a visual standpoint, we'd love to see what a screen full of these pods will feel like. What Ōma is selling is a premium experience, though, and unlikely to change the face of your local AMC or Odeon in the short term. 

Still, in an age where streaming services are fighting for people's attention with original movies, anything that enhances the traditional theater experience seems like it's worth trying.