The immersive theaters changing the way we experience film

Editor’s Note: This story is part of “Masters of Experience,” a series exploring the world’s most original experiences, as told by the visionaries who crafted them.

CNN  — 

Inside a shopping mall in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a futuristic movie theater lies in a state of motionless disarray. Pillars are strewn across the foyer beneath a sculptural canopy of angular shards. In the auditoriums, hundreds of acoustic panels have been scattered across the rooms’ walls, appearing like piles of bricks and rubble.

It looks like the aftermath of a high-budget Hollywood explosion – and that’s precisely the point, according to Virginia Lung, co-founder of the design firm behind the project, One Plus Partnership.

“We thought about how to really go into a movie world, where you can experience what it’s like being in a film,” she said in a phone interview. “Then we thought about movies we’d watched that have had the most impact on us and (we) came to the idea of an explosion.

“It’s like another world. And that’s just like the concept of movies itself – going to another world and experiencing things you won’t in your own life.”

The Guangzhou Haizhucheng IMAX was designed around the theme of a meteor shower. Often known as the "Meteor Cinema," the complex stretches over two floors and more than 44,000 square feet of floor space.

With China’s movie theaters now outnumbering those in the US, it is proving harder than ever to stand out from the crowd. (“On one street in China, there may be three or five already,” Lung said.) But the Hong Kong-based design firm is on a mission to craft unforgettable cinema experiences.

Over the past decade, Lung and her team have designed around 60 movie theaters across China and Hong Kong. While the themes vary substantially – from meteor showers in Guangzhou to coastal landscapes in Wuxi – the goal is always the same: immersive interior design that audiences enjoy as they would a museum or gallery.

“A movie can be shown anywhere, so the difference is the interior design,” Lung said. “When people go to new places, they look for new experiences, no matter where they are. People just want to feel – they want to be surprised.”

Creating an atmosphere

When Lung and her fellow co-founder, Ajax Law, were first approached by a major Hong Kong cinema chain, the husband-and-wife team had never designed movie theaters. But this proved to be an advantage. With portfolios spanning residential and retail projects, neither were constrained by preexisting norms.

The Shanghai Omnijoi International Cinema, a 36,000-square-foot movie theater designed by One Plus Partnership.

“In the US, a lot of cinemas just look the same,” Lung said, claiming that Chinese movie theaters have simply copied a Western model. “They are very literal. They think, ‘What’s in the movie?’ and then just put those things back into the cinema.”

“They use a lot of Iron Man or Marvel figures,” Law added. “But we wanted to think about how we could create another atmosphere for the audience.”

While some of the firm’s designs are standalone concepts, like the aforementioned meteor shower, many of them make subtle allusions to the imagery of filmmaking. At a cinema in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay, public areas are lit by scores of pole-mounted spotlights, giving visitors the feeling of being on a movie set.

Others are more abstract. At another movie theater in Wuhan, old reels of film are represented using huge aluminum plates that hang irregularly from the ceiling, like ornamental mobiles.

“We really want (visitors) to think about what’s behind the film,” Lung said, “because movie-makers can spend a really long time – at least two years – on one movie. That’s a lot of time and a lot people involved … it’s not a one- or one and a half-hour movie that just fades away.”

Sculpture as design

The Wuhan Wushang Mall International Cinema was designed to look like the aftermath of a high-budget Hollywood explosion. Hundreds of acoustic panels have been scattered across the auditoriums' walls, appearing like piles of brick and rubble.

With more space to fill than in typical retails projects, Lung’s concept cinemas often feature artistic sculptures, designed to be enjoyed independently from the watching experience. But that’s not to say they don’t have their own functions.

In fact, sculptures often serve dual roles, doubling up as seating, lighting and counter space. At Wuhan’s cinema, one of the collapsed columns opens at the bottom to reveal a box office.

Form and function must also converge in the auditoriums, where acoustic materials and matte surfaces are a must. Nonetheless, Lung sees her concept cinemas as artworks in themselves.

“We think that atmosphere in interior design is the most important thing,” she said. “Some people think that functionality is the most important; some people think that its comfort. But for us, these are just a basic requirement.

“We want to create something more like an art piece – its an abstract thing.”

Form and function converge in the auditoriums of the Shanghai Omnijoi International Cinema, where acoustic materials and matte surfaces must be incorporated into the design.

With Lung and Law’s dramatic cinemas accounting for just a handful of the 40,000-plus movie theaters found across mainland China, experiencing them remains something of a novelty. But the duo suggests that a growing number of developers are eschewing design norms in favor of something more experiential.

Lung recalled being asked by a client to design “something special,” because a uniquely designed cinema had been opened just across the road.

“It turns out that that cinema was also designed by us!”