Bill Warren brings "monster" IMAX theater to Wichita

By Joe Stumpe


That's probably what a lot of Wichitans will be texting when they get their first look at the 60-foot-high screen in the new IMAX theater in west Wichita. At least until they follow instructions and turn off their cell phones.

I wanted to do this big, outrageous theater, owner Bill Warren said. This is the biggest screen the factory could build. You're not going to go to Kansas City, Dallas, New York or Los Angeles and see a bigger screen. It's a monster.

The theater, part of the 21st Street Warren Theatre, opened December 17 with Tron.

At six stories tall and about 90 feet wide, the screen is two to three times bigger than any other in Wichita, and about four times bigger than the nearest IMAX theater, at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson. It takes two digital projectors equipped with 6,000-watt bulbs running simultaneously to light up the screen.

The screen isn't the only big thing in the theater. There are, for starters, 600 faux leather seats rising steeply toward the projection room.

Notice my small speakers in the corners, Warren said during a pre-opening tour last month.They weigh 700 pounds each.

Tron, the update of the 1982 science-fiction classic of the same name, is a good example of the kinds of films that will be shown in the theater. You're not going to see English dramas, which I love, Warren said. By its nature it's going to be big sounds, big effects, big spectacular stuff.

Warren is looking forward even more to the second scheduled film The Green Hornet, a remake of the cult favorite TV show opening this month. It's got all the action stuff, he said. I think it's going to be 10 times cooler than The Matrix.

Warren plans to switch out movies about every three weeks. Many will be 3-D movies, since about 70 percent of the IMAX films made feature that technology. Warren doesn't buy the view of some that 3-D movies are a passing fad. I think they're here to stay, he said.

Adult prices for the IMAX will be $2 more than a ticket to a regular Warren theater, with kids paying $1 more.

The king-sized theater could probably only have been built by an oversized personality like the colorful, wise-cracking Warren. Since starting with a couple of discount theaters, Warren has built a string of four theater complexes noted for their luxurious touches in Wichita and Moore, Oklahoma.

Warren said he waited to build an IMAX theater until there were enough feature films being made each year to justify it economically. He also wanted to renovate the entire west Warren theater complex, so he did the two projects at the same time, putting new seats, carpets and screens in the other 17 theaters.

Warren expects the IMAX theater to be a tourist attraction, drawing up to 40 percent of its audience from outside Sedgwick County, and 10 percent from outside the state.

He seems to be a hands-on boss stopping to remind an employee to polish some smudged entrance doors to one theater and one willing to delegate responsibility to the many long-time employees on his staff of 800.

During a walk-through of the IMAX theater a week before it opened, Warren joshed with everyone from construction workers to projectionists while still getting the information he was seeking about progress.

The grand opening went off as planned. Building an IMAX theater fits into Warren's philosophy of how to succeed in the business. After all, just about all theaters play the same movies, so it's the amenities that make the difference.

It doesn't make a bad movie good, but it just kind of makes a good movie special, he said.

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