Too big to fail 

Carmike supersizes Missoula theater

It's big. It's really big. It's big enough to make Justin Timberlake's neck stubble look like western larches dotting the Montana landscape. It's big enough to make sitting in the third row, as I did at the Carmike 12 on Friday night, a punishing exercise in craning your neck from side to distant side just to grasp the immensity of Timberlake's neck stubble. It's big enough to make you think for longer than you'd ever imagined possible about Timberlake's shaving habits. It's just...big.

And because we live in a society where measurables matter more than intangibles, where size trumps substance, the Carmike's new "BigD" theater and its 78-foot-wide and 38-foot-high screen must be nothing short of awesome. It's close to the size of an IMAX screen.

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Judging from the chatter at Friday's special screening, it was more than awesome—it was "epic." That's what the gaggle of teenagers called the monstrosity as they settled into the second row for the 7 p.m. show. Never mind that they arrived sometime around 7:45.

For a majority that attended the Carmike's inaugural week of "BigD" features, the movies were secondary to the screen itself. How else to explain a lineup that included such shoddy summer sequels as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Cars 2? Or the fact that a girl sitting in the fourth row during Friday night's show would stay for the regularly scheduled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 when she made known to anyone within earshot that she had intended to see Transformers? Whether by the quality of its lineup or the complexity of its published showtimes, the Carmike's grand debut of its "BigD" experience seemed to dare audience members to walk away talking about anything but the theater itself.

Luckily for Carmike, there was plenty to talk about. In addition to the "colossal wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor screen," the "BigD" features, according to Carmike's release, a "cutting edge Christie Brilliant 3-D flash projector" that produces "picture quality with noticeably higher resolution than HD." That picture quality is complemented by a digital audio system that includes six 21-inch subwoofers and 16 "quad-amplified, 4-way speakers." All that light and sound plays out in a 350-seat auditorium with "plush leather high-back rocking seats." There's even a tuxedo-clad usher who'll hold the door for you as you enter.

In action, the setup delivers its promised "sensory overload." The 2D trailers—including one for Timberlake's upcoming thriller, In Time—looked crisp and larger than life. The feature presentation looked even better, as some of 3D's drawbacks—darker images, a tendency to focus on only one object in the center of the frame—didn't seem as noticeable. For instance, during Deathly Hallows, when a flying dragon thing punched through the floor of a bank run by freaky troll people, the explosion reverberated throughout the theater and those of us sitting up front had to literally lean back in our fancy chairs to see the three-dimensional dragon extend into the middle of the theater. It was awesome—er, epic—even for someone who had no idea what was happening in the story.

"We're providing the ultimate entertainment experience that centerpieces large format digital with bigger screens, bigger and better sound, and luxurious in-theater seating for cutting edge presentation and the definitive enjoyment of our audiences," says David Passman, Carmike's president and CEO.

Carmike, of course, is banking on bigger being better. The national chain started rolling out the supersized theaters last year in markets that didn't follow the national trend of less people flocking to the multiplex. (Billings received the Northwest's first "BigD" theater in July; Missoula is the seventh "BigD" theater in the country.) According to The Hollywood Reporter, movie theater stocks continue to drop because 3D isn't the industry savior it was promised to be and many expected blockbusters have fallen flat. For example, 60 percent more people chose to see On Stranger Tides in 2D than 3D when it opened over the summer, and the film was considered a box office dud against lofty studio projections. Carmike's trying to offer something special. Put another way: If the movie doesn't keep people on the edge of their seats, at least make sure the seats are plush leather.

Starting this weekend, the Carmike 12 will begin playing new releases in its shiny new theater. Those shows will cost more—there's a $2 surcharge in addition to the regular adult ticket price—and some of the new-theater smell (a real thing) will have vanished. But the demand will still be there.

At the end of Deathly Hallows, as the nearly sold-out theater emptied into the parking lot and lobby, hundreds of others sat on the hallway floor waiting for the next show. Some were there for "BigD," but most were waiting to see Paranormal Activity 3, another poorly reviewed sequel that managed to top last weekend's box office by earning more than $52 million. It shows that while many turn their noses up at Hollywood's easy target, or prefer the more cosmopolitan selections at the Wilma, or shun going out altogether for the comfort of their couch and Netflix, there's still a market for the big-theater experience. The theater just had to get a whole lot bigger.

This week at the BigD: Puss in Boots 3D: Daily at 4:35 with 1:45 matinees. In Time: Daily at 7:20 and 10 PM.

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