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Unlike major chains who cookie cut their design, we excel at working up individual designs ensuring they meet the brand and the surrounding environment. We work with a number of designers and recommend the one we think best fits the vision. The design will be developed to suit the target market form the work we do on market appraisals.

Again, we have no fixed design for foyers or auditorium but will ensure that the design fits the brief, whilst being both functional and sustainable. We have close relations with all the major equipment and experience suppliers and ensure that their brand requirements are met and work with what the overall design, such as IMAX, D-box, Barco etc. We have an extensive range of suppliers we have worked with and recommend the rights ones for each cinema. Whatever your design and layout need’s we can enhance and optimise them.

With the advent of digital projection, cinemas are much more efficient whether a new build or a refurbishment of an existing cinema or revitalising an existing building. New cinemas are now able to be created in smaller spaces. The move to smaller, more efficient cinemas has led to some incredible re-thinking of space use and enabled redundant, often iconic buildings in towns and cities to be regenerated.

The design phase of a cinema project follows the completion and analysis of the feasibility (or viability) reporting stage. The conclusions drawn from these reports are critical for two reasons:

1) The designs for the cinema are based directly on the report recommendations.

2) The reports provide a clear picture of the marketplace into which the cinema will be positioned.

It's critical to establish the type of desired cinema before entering the design and layout stages of a project. This must include considerations on: how many screens / seats are appropriate, where the brand will be positioned in the marketplace, who the audience is. The latter consideration is key to deciding if the right type of cinema is a family multiplex or a boutique premium cinema.

Overall, square footage and building height are the factors that will determine if a cinema is to stand independently or if it is to be incorporated into a shopping centre.

Cinema Design

The breakdown of the overall design process is applicable to all types of build projects: new builds, conversions, refurbishments, unless specified otherwise.

The design process begins from day one of a project, all the way through to completion. Fortnightly design meetings act as imperative regular touch points throughout the course, to ensure a project stays loyal to proposed and agreed recommendations.

The Design Process

The start of the process begins with the results from the feasibility (or viability) reporting and the questions “What type of cinema is this? How many screens (and then seats) will it have?” should by now be answered. The process begins with an overview of the available space (square footage and dimensions), both internal and external. The overview of space should cover: entrances to the building, outside piazza spaces, toilets, foyer or lobby area, service touch points, ticket desks and critically, of course, the number of all-important auditoria sealed “black boxes”.

This information all contributes to the “vision” of the project. If a cinema is to be a boutique, Everyman-style cinema then that conjures a particular type of visual image and resulting experience - an intimate viewing experience with luxury concessions brought to your sofa-style seat.

Designing Your Cinema

The number of screens, and seating capacity within each black box, is usually always the first point of consideration in designing the space. The architectural designs will sketch these out as one of the very first stages. It’s The Big Picture’s (TBP’s) view that “the auditorium is king” - without detailed consideration of properly designed, optimal screening rooms the commercial business will never fulfil its potential. The customer journey, the commercial and physical aspects and technical delivery of a cinema business are all critical factors but the auditoria are paramount.

One thing to avoid is the production of a series of rigidly uniform replica black boxes - a variety of sizes and shapes are required for different offers. By way of an example: an intimate, 40-seater auditorium will differ considerably from an IMAX auditorium. This flexible approach is also critical when it comes to programming different film content in different screens to maximise revenue.

Start with Screens

Many architecture firms are capable of drawing plans for a cinema. But it’s firmly our belief at TBP that a cinema project must have a specialist cinema architect on board, which, for many reasons, is something we insist on.

A cinema architect will not only understand the building’s physical requirements, but will have a critical understanding of technical and legal necessities. There should also be a thorough comprehension of how the customer journey needs to flow from a commercial perspective.

Other technical considerations, that a cinema architect will be aware of, should be taken into account, including:

  • Height of the building (therefore the height of the lobby, bar/cafe, auditoria sizes)

  • Projection considerations

  • Any obstructions to projection / viewing (pillars, seat positioning etc)

  • Sight lines and viewing angles

  • Acoustics and acoustic obstructions

  • Heating / cooling / air conditioning

  • Fire exits


Please note that TBP have no affiliation with any particular architecture firms in this field but we are well-placed to make global recommendations. Please get in touch to discuss your needs.

Architects Specialising in Cinema Builds

A recommendation we always make is to hit maximum viewing angles, wherever possible, with every seat having an optimal view of the screen. A common misconception is that in order to be an enjoyable viewing experience the screen must be massive. This is not actually the case - what is vital (and is a rule that we strictly adhere to) is that, whether large or small, the screen must fill the vision of every audience member. It’s this which ensures a great viewing experience.

Viewing Angles

Fire exits are critical to the early design stages. A cinema is essentially a sealed black box with no natural ventilation system or windows. This means the cinema environment can pose a very real hazard if a fire were to start in an auditorium or elsewhere in the building.

During the preliminary sketch phase the auditoria boxes will be sketched out and a rough customer journey through the space illustrated, from entrance to exit. We can’t stress this enough: this is exactly when fire exits should be plotted.

Fire Exit Strategy

After an initial overview of the black box auditoria have been sketched out, a range of logistical aspects need to be taken into account. All important elements of the customer journey, these aspects come out of the feasibility (or viability) reports and are applied to the designs.

A cinema architect will understand how a customer will experience a venue and so the next layer of sketching will look at the following:

  • Ingress and egress to the building

  • Pinch points in and around the building

  • Customer flow > to avoid crushes or crossover

  • Amenities > overall available space, conference facilities, toilets, storage

This will then progress into further detail, allowing for the following:

  • Service points > self-serve ticket machines, seating plans

  • Food & beverage (F&B) > self-service & manual machines / counters

  • Staff facilities > management office, staff room

  • Seating type / configuration

  • Stepping

  • Ease of access

The Customer Journey

The brand concept for a particular project will initially be borne out of the recommendations made in the feasibility (or viability) reporting. These recommendations will point to what’s required from a branding concept for the project to succeed. This brief will then be fleshed out by a branding agency who TBP will work alongside.

A suitable colour palette and brand theme are critical to recognising “who” the cinema intends to be and the type of audience it will attract, ensuring it fits within the desired geographical location and local demographic. Established operators all have different colour schemes and decor in each site, for example, Cineworld uses a black, red and white logo and mirrors this palette throughout each site in their estate.

A Unique Selling Point (USP) is key to a strong brand, providing a truly original angle that competitors don’t have. A USP will contribute greatly to a brand finding its niche in the market and should be identified (and exploited) as early on in the process as possible. The design and architect team will interpret the brand concept creatively, to reflect elements throughout customer journey at key touch points.

TBP’s Role in Cinema Design

The three types of project (new build, conversion, and refurbishment) share most, if not all, of the processes and methodology discussed so far. But there are some differences to be aware of, namely the considerations and outcomes. The business plan for a project will always determine whether a new build, conversion or refurbishment is most relevant.

Whichever type of project is being considered, the building costs per square foot are key to determining how financially draining a project will be. A new build cinema is by far the easiest and most straight forward venture, in large part because a job of this nature begins with a clean slate. A refurbishment project is less straight forward but is easier than a conversion, depending on which specific elements of an existing cinema need refurbishing. A cinema conversion is, usually always, the most difficult and costly type of job.

If a project is to take a year or more (which is quite common), new developments, inventions and upgrades to the market are constant. This constant evolution is why fortnightly meetings are required, to ensure that all people involved with the project are on the same page. But also so that updates can be given, and subsequent decisions made, in a timely manner. At TBP we are not project managers but we will bring in a management team and sit closely to them to keep the process flowing as it should.

New Build Cinema vs Conversion / Refurbishment

A cinema refurbishment usually broadly falls into one of three categories:

1. Overall refurbishment - when there are multiple updates in several areas of a cinema, a full refurbishment is necessary. Because of the all-encompassing nature of the project, even for a small venue, this is obviously the biggest and most costly type of job. A viability report (carried out at the very beginning of the process) is essential to assess how much a scheme of this nature will cost before work starts, taking into account time for closure while works are carried out.

2. Aesthetic refurbishment - any visual aspects of the cinema that may be out of date or tired-looking may need a “facelift”. This can be budgeted for and handled in a way that doesn’t disrupt the daily running of the venue.

3. Technical refurbishment - in any technical refurbishment instance TBP will calculate the costs involved via a specific Profit & Loss (P&L) spreadsheet to calculate the Return on Investment (ROI) and Investment Rate of Return (IRR). IRR takes a maximum of five years but investors will typically see ROI within two to three years. There are usually two different aspects to a technical refurbishment:

3a) Technical Equipment: If any technical or projection equipment needs upgrading or installing, straightforward calculations can be made to see how much the install or upgrade will cost. A “desktop” calculation is done based on the number of auditoria / seats, current revenue, build costs, plus a calculation of the new technical equipment (for example, the cost to install an IMAX screen or 4DX technology). The potential increase in profitability is also taken into account for when the upgrade is complete because an uplift in ticket pricing will be applicable. A financial assessment of what will be needed is then put to the client.


3b) Considerations for a specific installation, such as IMAX, must include the venue closure time necessary to complete the works: IMAX requires everything to be ripped out, seating and stepping must be changed, and the whole screen dynamic altered.

3c) Seating: If seating in one or more auditoria needs to be replaced, due to age, wear & tear or any other reason, there are certain other factors to be taken into account. If the replacement is a like-for-like swap, this is simple and uncomplicated. If, however, the seating is being replaced by a luxury or premium option then these seats will be both wider and longer, taking up more space so less seats will fit into the overall auditorium space. The stadium seating will have to be overstepped so people can walk past easily and stretch out comfortably when seated. The upfront cost for this is significant but, with clear calculations to confirm this, premium seating can pay for itself via an uplift in ticket cost.


A cinema conversion is the most costly and difficult type of project due to the necessary and extensive rebuilding, remodelling (and often deconstructing) of a building formerly designed for another purpose. A compromising approach is often needed to reduce the pressures and solve any problems of a conversion venture.

A feasibility study for a conversion project will ascertain a) if it can be done and b) if it will be a good fit with its surroundings. We’ll often bring an architect onboard in the early stages to complete the introductory sketches (as part of the study). This will literally map out details, such as if the desired cinema will fit the available space, what are the various height measurements throughout the space etc. When the vision of the proposed new venue becomes clearer, we’ll put a selection of relevant architects to the client and we’ll be on hand to advise during the decision process.

But it’s important to point out that, despite the difficulties, converted cinemas often produce the most interesting type of venue and conversions are becoming a more prevalent type of job. The more attention this method attracts will mean the efficiency of these projects will only improve. Local authorities are keen to increase the footfall and dwell time in town centres and so often want an old shop unit or empty building turned into a cinema. For these (and plenty of other reasons) using an experienced, cost-effective cinema architect is becoming more important than ever.

Cinema Conversion

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