Home screening rooms

Once a symbol of the Hollywood elite, home theatres are catching on everywhere.

Leila Garadaghi took almost a minimalism approach to her home cinema.
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Since the golden days of Hollywood, when a private screening room was a privilege reserved for only the most A of the A-list (Mary Pickford and Douglas Banks at Pickfair; Edie Goetz - the daughter of Louis B Mayer and the original Hollywood princess), to the late 1970s, when Robert Evans's screening room at Woodland in Coldwater Canyon was the scene of legendary parties, private cinemas have had a unique cachet.

Now, though, almost in spite of the plethora of all-purpose "home entertainment systems" that have hijacked the term "home cinema", the trend to create standalone screening rooms is growing - not least because advances in technology have prompted a drop in the price of equipment, making a proper home cinema more affordable. To convert a spare room in their Abu Dhabi villa into a screening room, Peter Scarlet, the executive director of Abu Dhabi Film Festival and his wife, Nazzy Beglari-Scarlet, a senior international correspondent for Voice of America television, have not spent a fortune. The simple room, its walls painted white, two of them entirely covered with heavy cream curtains to soften it, houses a state-of-the-art Panasonic projector, a wall of custom-built shelves holding more than 1,000 DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, a five-speaker system, a beautiful Persian carpet, possibly the world's most comfortable seats and, quite often, a cat.

"We call it Jamal Theatre," says Peter. "We named it after our cat, who also likes to come in here and watch films." Although every night has been movie night (as well as some days) recently, once the film festival is over the Scarlets will get back to using their cinema for its chief purpose - entertaining friends. "We usually have friends over every Friday for dinner," says Nazzy, stretching out on one of the oversized recliner chairs that they bought from Crate & Barrel in Dubai after weeks of searching. "Sometimes we show a short film before dinner and then a feature film afterwards."

It sounds like domestic bliss and is a far cry from Hollywood extravagance. These days you're nobody in Laurel Canyon if you haven't got a fancy home theatre. Forget the lap-pool, the den, the 12-metre walnut deck and the California rock garden - it's the in-house cinema that makes the res truly des. Some go all out and install red velvet curtains across the screen, chairs that massage, warm or cool the incumbent, a popcorn machine, Coke dispenser and maybe a "starlight" ceiling with twinkling optic fibres - not to mention a sound system of recording studio quality.

In Dubai, Marie-Inez Botha, an interior designer and partner in Etcetera Living, has more and more clients craving screening rooms. "We've seen a huge increase in the number of requests for home cinemas; they all still want to keep their family TV rooms but convert another room in the villa into a home theatre with the latest and greatest technology and design." In contrast to the simplicity of the Scarlets' screening room, importing a complete, top-of-the-range home cinema from the US - which includes cinema-style chairs, wall panelling, cabinetry for the sound system, all the technology (surround-sound, plasma screens, etc) and even a team who flies over to install it - can cost roughly Dh1 million. "Designing one here of the same quality but for less [money] is challenging but achievable," says Botha.

"The design process for any villa, from inception to installation, can take from six to 18 months and therefore I leave the technology, such as decisions on whether to favour a TV or projector, to the end. There are specific considerations, such as avoiding and covering marble floors, 'dressing' [or soundproofing] the walls to avoid echoes and installing effective blackouts if the rooms have windows."

The decorative brief for home cinemas is also changing, according to Botha. "We have moved away from the more traditional cinema decor of blacks and reds and substituted the colours with homely hues such as beiges, browns and greys - and we bring the cinema closer to home by adding bean bags, snuggly throws and soft scatter cushions." Botha has also introduced big sleeper sofas, which can comfortably seat at least four people, in the front row with cinema-style chairs behind to give people more seating choice.

Another who has recently designed some spectacular screening rooms is David Collins, whose eponymous London-based studio is probably best known for designing the interiors of several of the UK capital's most exclusive bars, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. In one recent screening room he lined the walls with pale-coloured silk panels and filled it with bespoke lighting and furniture, including a bar; in another he covered the walls with stretched burgundy leather.

"One particularly beautiful room we developed had rows of love-seats and bean bags upholstered in a beautiful sky-blue silk velvet, with cashmere throws and cushions and deep midnight-blue silk walls," he says. Collins recognises that this addition to a home is an indulgence and "similarly to any living or drawing room, it has to be fabulously appointed, practical and - most importantly - comfortable".

However, he adds, nowadays everyone can install new technology in their living room, study or even bedroom. "Fantastic products such as Apple TV allow you to watch film and TV on demand, and the quality of audio-visual equipment available is incredible." But here's an important distinction: there are two schools of thought when it comes to home cinema. A film-mad friend in England is immensely proud of what he calls his "private cinema", which consists of a gigantic surround-sound flat-screen TV in his living room through which he plays DVDs far too loudly while munching microwaved popcorn. But, as Peter Scarlet rightly queries, is that really a home cinema?

"The essence of cinema is that light passes through film and is projected onto a flat surface," he says. "I think it was the French film theorist Christian Metz who said that when you sit in a cinema the source of the image is located in a place from where we know all thought comes - the back of our heads," or at least somewhere above and behind our heads in the projectionist's booth. "With a modern home cinema using a projector, admittedly the light doesn't pass through film any more because we now all use DVDs, but the projector is there behind you and the image is there projecting on to a white wall in front of you; that's as close to cinema as we're likely to be able to get. Using a television will never be as convincing because the light is coming from behind the screen."

For someone with a job such as Scarlet's the ability to watch films and judge them in a way that's as close as possible to a cinema experience is very important, instead of watching them reduced and altered on a TV screen. "It seems to me that we owe it to the filmmakers who send us their films to watch them in a way that's as close as possible to what they intended." A home cinema may not be as high-tech as a 1,000-seat public cinema but it's a lot better in many ways.

As well as the fun of having a private screening room, there is also a worthwhile educational element. With the vast majority of films shown in the UAE's multiplexes being of the mass-crass Hollywood and Bollywood genres, choice is sadly limited. Once you have installed your own system at home, you become the programmer. "With a private screening room you can - with some assiduous effort - assemble a collection that's like your home museum of cinema, which gives you access to films that, certainly in this part of the world, you cannot ever see in a cinema," says Scarlet.

"I have met people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi who have built home screening rooms so they can see films that they cannot see elsewhere in the UAE and they can begin to teach themselves the history of cinema, which is something that hasn't been possible before." This has to be good for the UAE's burgeoning film industry and the rising tide of multi-genre film interest. But maybe the most rewarding advantage of a home screening room is being able to take control of your own enjoyment. Anyone who has visited the cinema lately and sat helpless and frustrated in the midst of a crowd of people yelling into their mobiles and chattering among themselves throughout the film will know what I mean.

With the home screening room, the only disturbance you'll experience is if the cat needs to be let out.