Architect Jeffrey Cooper Reflects on the Upcoming 40th Anniversary of His Design of the First Stadium Theater Multiplex in the World

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“When I started out in the 1970s, as a young Architect, interested in acoustics and Theater Design, movie theaters were very bare bone construction projects. Except for the occasional “vintage theater” built in the 1940s, such as the Paramount Theater in Oakland or the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, most movie theaters had very small screens, and were constructed from painted cinder block walls with very poor acoustics. The movie sound systems at that time were mostly mono (i.e. only one speaker) not stereo, and certainly not equipped with “surround sound” or subwoofers. The movie theater floors were concrete slabs and they were only slightly sloped toward the screen, so the audience sight lines were very poor. “If the guy in front of you was tall, or wearing a hat, you couldn’t see the screen! ” says Architect Jeffrey Cooper. There was a lot of opportunity for improvement.


“The Stadium Concept”

With his background in Architecture and Acoustics from MIT, Jeffrey Cooper imagined a completely different approach to movie theater design in the 1970s. Jeffrey Cooper graduated from MIT with 4 Degrees in 1974. That included a Master of Architecture, with a specialty in Acoustics. He had the tools and the knowledge, had written a book about acoustics and had accomplished all of this by the time he was only 22 years old.

Prototype Stadium Theater built for George Lucas by Architect Jeffrey Cooper

“Why not design movie theaters the way the Romans designed their ancient amphitheaters?” That’s what I was thinking to myself, says Architect Jeff Cooper. “Why not design stepped viewing platforms, allowing an unobstructed view of the movie screen for everyone, short or tall, young or old? “. Cooper reckoned that if this idea was properly engineered, the movie screen could be enlarged dramatically in height & width, since there would be no sight obstructions for anyone in the audience. “The movie image itself could then extend literally from the floor to the ceiling and everyone could have perfect sight lines!” said Jeff Cooper. He figured that because the human ear is aligned with the eye, the hearing lines for the sound system would also be dramatically improved, along with the sight line improvements.

Cooper calculated that his “Stadium” idea could allow the screen size in theaters to be increased by 200% percent. The stereo speaker distance could also be increased, so both the movie image and the virtual sound image could be “super dramatic” for the audience benefit.

At the same time, Cooper had recently invented the “infinite baffle speaker wall”, which he copyrighted in 1976. This consisted of a full-height acoustical baffle wall, to be located directly behind an acoustically perforated movie screen, out of sight of the audience. This infinite baffle sound wall would house the woofers, subwoofers and the midrange horns (the speaker components), all tightly fitted in vibration-proof housings. The sound would be greatly improved, and the bass frequencies would be dramatically pumped up for the audience. Cooper’s sound wall also optimized the stereo imagery effect, allowing each source in the stereo soundtrack to be accurately pinpointed in the audio panorama, thus increasing the audience’s sense of realism.

“Enter George Lucas – Building the Prototype”

Architect Jeff Cooper assembled a prototype “Theater of the Future” design that included stepped stadium seating, his infinite baffle speaker wall, a massive gently curved floor-to-ceiling perforated movie screen and of course, superb acoustics. He presented his concept to George Lucas in 1978. Lucas had just accomplished his own amazing success with his film Star Wars. Lucas was captivated by Cooper‘s ideas and he hired Cooper to build the prototype Theater in San Rafael, CA for his new company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM is part of LucasFilm). Lucas was very interested in optimizing the audience experience and improving the quality of sound in film, as he began to produce more films for the Star Wars series. The prototype was built by Cooper’s construction team and by the time it was finished, it was considered a milestone in Theater Design. Lucasfilm used Cooper‘s ILM theater to mix the soundtrack for his new film, The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars series. Lucasfilm received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound for that effort.

Cooper’s ideas became the basis for George Lucas’ mission to improve the theatergoing experience. The ideas were incorporated into the “THX-The Audience is Listening”, Lucas’s program to improve the quality of theaters, which was announced in 1983. (LucasFilm and much of its intellectual property was sold to Disney in 2015 for $4 Billion).

“Ted Mann Takes the Next Leap”

By this time in early 1983, with his prototype built, Jeffrey Cooper had become the acknowledged expert for the new wave of Theater designs. He was then hired by Ted Mann, the Theatre magnate in Los Angeles, who owned the Mann Theater chain, and most of the famous Premier Theaters in Los Angeles, including Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood (formerly Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where all the famous stars handprints & footprints are on display ) as well as The Fox Theater and the National Theater in Westwood, Los Angeles. Ted Mann wanted Jeff Cooper to design the first “Stadium Theater Multiplex” in the world for his Chain of Theaters. The site was chosen. It was to be the historic “Criterion Theater, originally built in 1924, in Santa Monica, in the heyday of Hollywood’s silent films.

Because of the space restrictions of the historic site, Jeff Cooper came up with an ambitious and complicated scheme. It involved stacking eight Stadium Theaters on top of one another and interconnecting them by escalators. The project was built and opened to rave reviews for its audacious designs and great sound. The stacked Stadium Multiplex idea was born! This stacked multiplex design became the prototype for new Theater complexes all over the world, especially in hi-end urban locations such as New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Madrid, and Paris.

The Criterion Theater project was located on the newly developed Third Street Promenade, an outdoor, pedestrian-friendly mall. With the new Theaters as magnets, two other theater complexes soon opened nearby. Over the years, the Promenade became a lively center for street musicians, budding entertainers, hip restaurants and boutique shopping. The 3rd Street Promenade became a tourist magnet for visitors from around the world, a Santa Monica pedestrian hotspot.

“The Stadium Concept Takes Time to Catch On”

High-quality Theaters cost more to build, because of the steeply sloped floors, the soundproofing, the acoustical treatments and of course the elevators and escalators needed to reach the multiple levels of the complex. Because of the increased cost of building these high-quality Stadium Theaters, it took a little time for Cooper’s concept to catch on. Within 10 years, by the 1990s, movie ticket prices had increased enough to justify the additional cost of constructing high-quality theaters, and the Stadium concept took off. Various versions of Cooper’s design proliferated in concrete, steel, and other forms, from Architects around the world. It soon became clear that Cooper‘s ideas and his designs for Theaters had forever changed the landscape for Theater Design and had improved the Theater-going experience for the movie audience.

“Cooper Receives Recognition “

In 2003, 25 years after introducing the stadium concept to the film industry, Cooper was officially recognized by the Motion Picture Industry for his contributions to Motion Picture Theater design. Architect Jeff Cooper was called “Hollywood’s Most in Demand Screening Room Designer” by the Wall Street Journal and the “Mandarin” of Acoustic and Theater Design.

Now, 40 years later, almost all new Movie theater complexes built around the world use Jeffrey Cooper’s “Stadium” concept, together with his “infinite baffle speaker wall” design.

Jeffrey Cooper’s firm continues to innovate and has recently entered the field of Museum Design, combining Architectural creativity with advanced Audio Visual techniques. In 2008 Jeff Cooper designed the 3D Foster Theater at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Cooper’s firm worked recently on a proposal for a new Museum of African Culture and the History of Slavery for the President of Benin, in West Africa.