Fall 2019


By Filmmakers for Filmmakers

For the DGA's reimagined theater, a committee of directors ensured that new enhancements matched their vision

By Steve Chagollan

The DGA's reimagined 600-seat flagship theater is equipped with a sprawling 50-foot screen and a Dolby Atmos immersive sound system that includes more than 70 Meyer speakers. (Photo: Megan Husri)

When the DGA Theater was unveiled three decades ago with the debut of the Guild's iconic Sunset Boulevard headquarters, it was envisioned to be the home for filmmakers to screen their work in an environment perfectly suited for them. Thirty years on, when it came to reimagining the theater for the next generation, that mission was never more clear.

The complete overhaul of the 600-seat venue—which has showcased countless filmmakers who have personally presented their work to the Guild through the years—was overseen by a blue-ribbon panel drawn from that same talent pool. And there were no half measures.

"It started as a modest renovation and we quickly, as a group, came to 'Why a renovation? Gut the whole place, start over and build the best thing we possibly can,'" says Michael Mann, who worked with Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Michael Apted, Betty Thomas and Shawn Levy to create the best possible cinematic experience for the audience, designed and executed by directors. Mann says the intended starting point was to update the sound system. "That quickly became customized Dolby Vision, a new screen, Dolby Atmos, wall coverings, etc.—because the DGA Theater should be a reference standard. It wasn't so much that it was behind as it was that its shelf life was coming to an end."

No detail was spared, from the aforementioned state-of-the-art laser projection and audio systems to orchestrating the maximum environment, right down to the chrome railings that flank the stage being painted black, says Mann, "so that when the lights are out, you're not distracted by reflections."

Mann cites 2017's Blade Runner 2049 as an example of certain seemingly intangible considerations that went into the main theater's design. "Denis Villeneuve gives you a monochromatic environment in the opening of 2049 for one reason and one reason only: to make that orange flower stand out when Ryan Gosling sees it," says Mann. "So every decision—the muted taupes, the nearly monochromatic quality of it—is designed for that one thing. In Dolby Vision, the definition in the monochromatic sections is particularly acute; there's a heightened actuality. So that's the aesthetic sensibility we collectively, all of us in the committee, wanted to bring to the decisions that got made."

While the DGA supports all formats that its members work in, the reality is that filmmakers are finding it increasingly difficult for their work to be shown on the big screen for any sustained period of time. And while streaming platforms have changed the equation on how directors' visions are seen by audiences, the shared, big-screen presentation has become a mission statement for many prominent filmmakers.

"The audience engages in a visceral, subjective experience and shared empathy maximized with the largest possible screens," notes Christopher Nolan about the communal viewing dynamic. "In movies and in the movie theater—and nowhere else—you have people look at the image and the sound from the same point of view, and audiences sharing the same point of view together. This is unique to movies and can't be stated enough."

The projection room in the DGA Theater is capable of screening films in Dolby Laser Vision, 35mm and 70mm. (Photo: Tricia Noble)

But in drawing up the specs for improving the DGA's big theater, Nolan remained mindful of formats that have stood the test of time. "In addition to offering all those technological bells and whistles," he says of the upgrade, "it was important that our theater also remained a home for the analog brilliance of 35mm or 70mm, so we're fully equipped to showcase every feature as its director intended for it to be experienced."

Included among the new features are a sprawling 50-foot screen and a custom Dolby Atmos immersive sound system, including over 70 newly installed Meyer speakers that line both sides of the theater.

"Michael Apted and I came in here when the speaker system decision was going to be made, and there was a manufacturer recommendation," recalls Mann. "We said, 'No, we're not just going to go with specs.' We wanted the whole system set up, and auditioned a couple of manufacturers. We wanted to hear how it would sound moving in this particular space. We're not going to blindly make a huge investment in a massive speaker system. After auditioning two complete systems with whole teams from the companies, we picked the Meyer Sound System. Both were technically spot-on, but it became about a difference in emotional musicality that really is important to us.

"You can have two or three different sound systems and one emotionally sounds more musical, just as an emotional response, than another, even though they're technically close," adds Mann. "These are the kinds of decisions any of us on the committee would make if they were being made on a film. It was great to be able to think and execute the same way in designing how a film's exhibited."

"Technological innovation is allowing filmmakers to tell stories in a way we never could before," adds Jon Favreau, whose The Jungle Book and The Lion King both raised the bar on VFX and the use of VR in pre- and postproduction. "Having a theater that is designed to showcase their films with the most cutting-edge systems available allows our stories to be seen in the way they were intended."

Putting those systems to the test came when the theater reopened Sept. 21, with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, presented by Favreau, followed by a Q&A with Scott. Also on the bill was the late Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own, which was presented by Betty Thomas, as well as a screening of James Cameron's Avatar, introduced by Mann.

The bottom line, echoes Nolan: "The new DGA Theater is the best home on the planet for generations of members to immerse audiences into their cinematic worlds."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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