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Hamptons Babylon

Private Screening rooms are the new must haves for the home

It wasn’t so long ago that a poolhouse and a fully-equipped gym were standard features of every high-value property in the Hamptons. But the amenity du jour in high value homes is a private screening room. We don’t mean “media rooms”–essentially large dens with outsized flat screen TVs. Nor are we referring to finished basements kitted out with clunky DVD players, those relics of the pre-digital age. We’re talking about small movie theaters, complete with auditorium-style seating, professional-quality projectors, and full-size screens.

Bryan Midlam, an associate broker at Corcoran, says, “Years ago when I saw my first home move theater it was really old-timey with a Hollywood dressing room type of structure and a bar. Now they’re much more sophisticated. I’ve seen hundreds of them at this point.” Although there are exceptions–a great house in a fantastic location, for example–Midlam says that “anybody buying a new build for three or four million dollars and up, can expect it to be part of the deal.”

Naturally, there are different grades of luxury and attention to detail. At its simplest, a new build might have a simple installation which the buyer can retrofit as desired. In those cases, the buyer will typically engage the services of an architect or an electronic integration company, which can act as a subcontractor and oversee and streamline the electronic aspects of the project. John Lovett, a co-owner of Sensoryphile, one such electronic integration company, says it’s not unusual for a top-of-the-line installation to run over $2 million. It’s not just the leather recliners and popcorn machines, or the ultra-high precision equipment that can drive up costs, but the expense of proper sound-proofing. “The best private screening rooms are virtually rooms-within-rooms,” says Lovett. “Clients who want to recreate the quality of a commercial cinema will often isolate the room from the rest of the house, to limit the amount of noise that leaves the theater so they can really blast the sound.”

And then there’s staffing to consider. Midlam says it isn’t uncommon for people to hire ushers to seat guests during screenings. Those who wish to show first-run films will need to pay steep licensing fees and hire a projectionist. “People will go to surprising lengths to achieve a home theater experience,” says Midlam, who recalls visiting one such space that had at least sixty seats. “This place was well below ground and had a high-domed ceiling and a retractable screen. You know the kind that drops down? It was kind of crazy to think that you were in someone’s home.”

How did we go from public cinema to the invitation-only home theater? One of the first and most cutting-edge private screening rooms on the East Coast was in the home of Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy. In the 1920s, Kennedy was tasked with the reorganization and refinancing of a number of major film studios. According to an account of that part of his career, Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years by Carl Beauchamp, Kennedy transformed the basement of his Hyannisport summer home into a cinema. “The finest commercial projectors were installed behind a steel door for fire protection and there was plenty of room for the audience to view the films in comfort.”

Given the high flammability of nitrate-based film stock–hence those fireproof steel doors–home screening rooms remained a rarity until the nineteen fifties when the motion picture industry adopted safety film, essentially cellulose treated with acetate. But even then, private screening rooms were most often found in the homes of movie people–studio heads, directors of blockbuster films, top actors, and the like. For that crowd, the private screening room was both tool of the trade and a symbol of success. And to be invited to a private screening also carried social cachet.

With the birth of the video rental industry in the late 1970s came the advent of the ‘media room.’ Suddenly you no longer had to be an industry tycoon or even very rich to watch movies from the comfort of your own bean bag. Perhaps in reaction to the mass marketing of these spaces, some members of the financial elite converted the basements of their houses into bona fide cinemas, complete with a projectionist’s booth. The phenomenon caught on in the Hamptons, where watching movies in a luxe private setting soon became a mark of social distinction. And for the past several years, private screening rooms have figured high on the amenities wish list of luxury home seekers.” The size of these projects is growing,” notes Lovett. “They’re more elaborate than they were in the past, more complex.”

Where is home cinema headed? Lovett reports that he’s seeing an increasing demand for seasonal outdoor installations. His firm is even working on a rooftop cinema. With open-air cinemas, the chief concern is weatherproofing the equipment and protecting it from the elements. In terms of capability, you need a projector that can compete with ambient light and nearby lighting fixtures. “Otherwise,” Lovett says, “the source looks washed out.” “Most of our customers come from urban environments,” he adds. “When they’re out here, they want to make the most of outdoor spaces, and this is another way them to capitalize on the beauty of their natural surroundings.”

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