Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

New name, same chocolate popcorn: Seattle's Cinerama reopens as SIFF Cinema Downtown in December

caption: The Seattle International Film Festival took over ownership of the city's beloved Cinerama movie theater in May 2023. It renamed it "SIFF Cinema Downtown."
Enlarge Icon
The Seattle International Film Festival took over ownership of the city's beloved Cinerama movie theater in May 2023. It renamed it "SIFF Cinema Downtown."
Seattle International Film Festival

After a four-year hiatus, and an acquisition by the Seattle International Film Festival, Seattle’s beloved Cinerama movie theater, home of the chocolate popcorn, huge screens, and fancy seats, is scheduled to reopen.

Under its new name, SIFF Cinema Downtown will reopen Dec. 14, becoming the fourth venue operated by Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). This makes SIFF the latest owner of the historic theater, which first opened in the 1960s. It was previously owned by billionaire Paul G. Allen.

The first movie screening will be the Warner Brothers holiday-season release, “Wonka,” a family film starring Timothée Chalamet, the latest remake of Roald Dahl's classic novel, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

RELATED: Seattle proposes $1 million grant toward Cinerama reopening

“It’s a little full circle for us,” SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett said. “Not just in the fact that it is the ultimate experiential film. But it combines scents and taste and you know, the idea of just chocolate everywhere, and tying it to that to the chocolate popcorn. But it's also great for the entire family.”

Cinerama was widely known for its chocolate popcorn. Not only will the popcorn be back for the theater's return, but SIFF is working to maintain some of the old theater’s aesthetic, too. It has a partnership with MoPOP to bring film relics into the space, a remnant of the days when costumes from popular movie characters donned the lobby.

“We're working with MoPOP now,” Barrett said. “And we've got a couple of replicas. We have R2D2 and a character from 'The Land Before Time,' I believe it is. And they're replications. Paul Allen himself owned those costumes. And the estate did give them to MoPOP as part of the estate succession. But putting them in close proximity to butter is not really great for original items. So we're working with MoPOP on these amazing reproductions.”

The original Cinerama opened in 1963. At the time, the theater had the groundbreaking technology of screening three-strip Cinerama films on its epic 97-foot curved screen consisting of 2,000 vertical strips.

In the 1990s, the building was in disrepair and facing closure, but it was purchased by art enthusiast and philanthropist Paul G. Allen. Allen did a multi-million dollar renovation of the building that included interior updates, like Italian leather seats, to updating the screens with the ability to show both classic movies and new productions.

RELATED: Paul Allen's big-money legacy haunts the Seattle arts scene

In 2020, the cinema closed during the Covid pandemic. It remained shuttered, until now.

“We are honored to take on stewardship and reopen the doors of this truly historic theater. It’s a film venue adored by the community and speaks to the critical role SIFF plays in bringing the power and art of film to diverse audiences across our region,” SIFF Executive Director Tom Mara said in a statement.

Mara announced the acquisition of the Cinerama in May, during the 49th annual Seattle Film Festival. At that time, no date was set for reopening. In August, both the city of Seattle and King County Council made financial contributions of nearly $1 million each, to support the reopening of the theater in Seattle’s downtown core.

Now, SIFF Cinema Downtown is one of two theaters in the country capable of screening three-strip Cinerama films. Civic leaders hope the return of this theater will generate foot traffic downtown. Film enthusiasts will be reintroduced to a centrally located theater that will feature screenings of both blockbuster studio films and first-run arthouse cinema, as well as hosting events like SIFF’s annual festival.

RELATED: Seattle's Grand Illusion Cinema, indie film buff favorite, faces uncertain future following $2.3 million sale

Why you can trust KUOW