Mike Furlinger, Terrace Theater owner and the man behind the old downtown venue's rebirth, was testing the screen on the day I visited him. It adjusts to the requirements of each film. For art house fare, it retracts to a width of 54 feet. For blockbusters made in wide-screen format, it expands to a whopping 74 feet.
As we talked, the crew in charge of installing the screen settled down for lunch. The darkness flickered as they ate with the light of a movie, which Furlinger was using for a test run, that involved women dancing for a music video. Then the camera panned to two gigantic mocha-colored breasts.
"See how good I am to you guys," Furlinger said. "I did that for you."
He was kidding. The crew happened to walk in during that revealing scene. But the moment graphically illustrated the screen's size. And perhaps Furlinger's ambitions, too.
The old IMAX closed in 2007. It likely couldn't make much money, because there aren't enough movies made in that format. For years and years, movies designed with IMAX in mind were mostly novelties: undersea vistas, NASCAR, roller coasters, and such. Technology for IMAX has finally moved into the digital age, and Hollywood has begun making movies specifically for it. But still, there aren't enough of them.
"They make maybe half a dozen movies a year," Furlinger says with his broad, just-off-the-plane New Yawk accent. "You can't do that with a single-screen venue."
So he scrapped the IMAX brand and went for a screen that could adjust to CinemaScope width. The plan is to show as many mainstream movies as he can, as frequently as he can. He will alternate on occasion with an art house film. Either way, movies at the Hippodrome won't play for longer than a month, likely less than that, especially if it's a stinker. There probably won't be many of those, because Furlinger, booking as he is for just one screen, has the luxury of choosing the hottest picks.
For instance, on tap this summer are: Star Trek, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Other box-office homeruns will come. Star Trek marks the debut, and Furlinger is set to let opening night run for 30 straight hours.
"I can't rely simply on my good looks, you know," he says. "You gotta have smarts, too."
Smarts are what got Furlinger to the Hippodrome. He'd been courting Rivers Enterprises about leasing the empty IMAX venue since September. The idea was to break into the downtown market, where there are no movie theaters. But the move was also practical. Furlinger's current venue, the Terrace Theater on James Island, has just three screens. A fourth screen is in store, but there are still more movies than he has room for.
The Hippodrome will handle the overflow. Art house movies can be tucked in-between the bigger flicks. That won't happen often, Furlinger cautions, but it will happen. Hence, a screen that retracts to the right width. The theater also features True Digital DTS sound and 415 blue leather seats made by BMW. Furlinger swears they are the same ones you find in the luxury cars. He loves that feature (it pre-dates his occupancy, by the way), because BMW seats are just the right kind of amenity to appeal to the clientele he's aiming for: affluent downtowners.
He's likely to get more than that. The Hippodrome features the same beer, wine, and food items that are at the Terrace Theater. Furlinger hopes to put live bands in the retro lobby area to encourage people to arrive early and stay late after a show. And over time, movie technology will get better and cheaper, too. The Hippodrome can accommodate analog and digital movies currently. Later, Furlinger plans to revisit upgrades in 3-D technology.
As for "Hippodrome," where does it come from? Anything to do with mocha-colored breasts? Tragically, no. It's just a fancy name for a movie theater, and like a true aficianado, Furlinger proves to be the name's biggest fan. He's bedecked the entire lobby with posters that recall the name's heroic past in places like Paris, New York, even Constantinople.
"You have to admit, there's no better name than that," he says.