Modern Movie Palace

When the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake rattled the Bay Area to its core in 1989, San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center — at the time a poorly maintained dollar-house theater — suffered significant structural damage and shut down indefinitely. Four years later, the California Film Institute and the now-dissolved San Rafael Redevelopment Agency rallied to revive the theater with the goal of creating a state-of-the-art cinema space that would act as the Mill Valley Film Festival’s year-round home. On April 16, 1999, the theater reopened as an art-deco movie palace, designed and engineered under the direction of Bay Area architect Mark Cavagnero to provide the most technologically advanced moviegoing experience possible.

To this day, the Smith Rafael Film Center (“the Rafael” for short) is touted for impeccable audiovisual presentation in all three of its theater rooms, each offering a unique cinematic experience. From the big-night-out feel of Theater One to the intimate vintage vibe of Theater Two to the sleek technological powerhouse that is Theater Three, here’s an inside look at the details and special touches that distinguish the Mill Valley Film Festival’s primary showplace.

The THX Factor

Above all else, the key to the Rafael’s stellar audiovisual presentation is the fact that each room is THX certified. Since 1983, the George Lucas–founded THX has been certifying theaters around the world, meticulously testing and calibrating each piece of equipment to ensure every room meets industry standards. “It’s the size of the screen to the room, your angle to the screen, the luminosity of the projected image,” Rafael technical director Dan Zastrow explains. “When you meet these expectations, you’re considered THX certified.”

Meeting THX standards was easier said than done, especially for a building like the Rafael, originally a one-screen theater and later remodeled to include the two additional screens on the second floor. Each of the three spaces posed unique technical and architectural challenges that Cavagnero and his team had to creatively overcome before earning the coveted THX-certified distinction.

Theater One

Walk underneath the Rafael’s neon-lit marquee, through the shiny front doors, through the beautifully restored lobby (complete with an original mural and chandelier from the 1930s), down the hallway on the left and through the big doors on the right, and you’ll step into the wide-open, elegant embrace of Theater One, the Rafael’s original movie room. Almost every structure and adornment in the theater is original from 1938, from the mural and columns that frame the screen to the ceiling painting and white and cobalt chandeliers.

What has seen a modern update are the theater’s seats, specifically engineered to be comfortable as well as enhance acoustics and meet THX standards. Typically, when a movie theater is full, each audience member absorbs a certain amount of sound coming from the speakers, but when a seat is empty, the metal seat bottom reflects sound, which negatively affects the overall audio. The seat bottoms in the Rafael, however, are perforated to absorb sound rather than reflect it. Similarly, the main screen is also perforated with tiny holes to allow sound coming from the subwoofers and the left, center and right channel speakers sitting behind the screen to pass through more easily.

Normally, the holes in a perforated movie screen get clogged up over time by popcorn oil that permeates the air in the theater, resulting in muffled sound as well as that oh-sofamiliar popcorn smell. While the Rafael does serve popcorn, the nostalgic buttery aroma is conspicuously absent when you enter the lobby because the popcorn machine is outfitted with a special exhaust that pipes those traces of oil out of the building, ensuring all screens stay perforated and unblocked for the most pristine sound possible.

Extra steps were also taken to guarantee a top-notch image quality. Each screening room has digital projectors to meet modern standards and 35mm projectors to screen preserved prints on special occasions. Theater One seats 340 guests, a significant reduction from the original seat count. In addition to providing extra legroom, the reduced number helps ensure there literally isn’t a bad seat in the house. Every chair is situated at a THX-certified angle and distance relative to the screen, and rows are spaced so that all sight lines are optimal.

Theater Two

Up the shiny, curved staircase in the lobby and to the left is Theater Two, designed by Cavagnero and his team to be a window to the past. The 129-seat room is a close approximation of what the very first incarnation of the theater (then called the Orpheus) looked like in 1920, from the stenciled accents to the columns that line the walls.

According to Zastrow, of the three rooms, Theater Two was the most difficult to construct in accordance with THX height, width and length specifications, since the room was previously the main theater’s balcony section. To meet THX requirements, a coffered ceiling was installed, a visually pleasing accent that, much like every other nook and cranny of the building, was designed with audiovisual presentation in mind. The retro decor and personal feel of Theater Two make it highly conducive to audience participation and interaction in the festival’s filmmaker panel discussions and Q&As.

Theater Three

Across the landing from Theater Two, this theater occupies a space that once was a bookstore next door. Unlike One and Two, Theater Three bears no tributes to history, aiming its sights squarely at modern aesthetics. “If Theater Two is the cinema of the past and Theater One is the theater of the present, Theater Three is the cinema of the future,” Zastrow says. Walking into the 80-seat auditorium is almost startling for the silence that prevails once the door swings shut.

Despite being the smallest of the three, this theater is also the most immersive, with walls, seats, speakers and screen engineered precisely to THX specifications. In fact, THX had a hand in designing Theater Three and modeled it after the famous Stag Theater at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, a viewing space widely considered one of the best in the world. “When THX did their final testing on the room, it passed in five minutes,” Zastrow says.

Also unique to Theater Three is its screen, designed to present CinemaScope images. Almost twice as wide as the typical academy aspect ratio, CinemaScope is completely enveloping, and combined with the THX-certified sound it provides a breathtakingly absorbing experience that minimizes distractions and enhances each film’s transportive qualities.

Bernard Boo

Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.