Recreating yesterday’s opulent movie palaces at home, with today’s tech

TK Theaters Super Rich Home Theater

Few experiences in life leave as lasting an impression as the very first time you see a movie in a theater. In my case, that first experience was technically at a drive-in north of Toronto where I watched the utterly forgettable, Swashbuckler, starring Robert Shaw, who apparently didn’t make enough from Jaws the year before. But my first genuine experience at a theater was at the historic Eglinton Theater, where I watched Star Wars in 1977.

The Eglinton opened in 1936 and its beautiful art deco, single-screen auditorium would serve as my refuge and favorite movie theater until it closed on April 1, 2002. Between 1977 and 2002, I viewed more than five hundred films at this grand theater, and while it still exists as an event and wedding facility, the projection room is long gone.

One of the biggest tragedies of the multi-plex (there are so many and it’s almost hard to know where to start) is that hundreds of classic movie palaces were demolished across North America to make way for retail spaces, condominiums and wedding halls. Not only did moviegoers lose access to theaters with state-of-the-art projection and sound systems, but communities lost beautiful architectural structures forever.

With the advent of home theater, cinephiles were suddenly presented with an interesting opportunity: the chance to relive the golden age of cinema in the comfort of their own homes. For Theo Kalomirakis, a Brooklyn-based designer who spent his childhood viewing cinema in the grand movie palaces in his native, Athens, Greece, it was an opportunity that he would ultimately turn into a global success story.

Kalomirakis is credited as being the pioneer in the design and development of opulent home theaters, but his contribution over the past twenty-three years has reached far beyond that. Kalomirakis’ work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Playboy, Robb Report, and around the globe in several other magazines and newspapers. He has also been awarded numerous awards for his state-of-the-art concepts and architecture.

Through his design firm, TK Theaters, Kalomirakis created an industry. And while other designers have emerged over the years and done a wonderful job building unique home theaters for clients all over the globe, he is still considered to be the godfather of home theater design.

Sitting in one of his completed theaters, you can learn a lot about the man and how every little detail matters to him. 

Kalomirakis’ client base includes movie stars, sports legends, and even world leaders who have hired him to rebuild the classic movie palaces of the world inside their homes, albeit at a much smaller scale; but also at a very high price.

Even with prices exceeding $1 million for a home theater, Kalomirakis has built up a steady book of clients in the United States. What sets his work apart is his passion and almost obsessive attention to detail. Having inspected more than one TK Theater project in New Jersey during both the construction phase and upon completion, I think it’s fair to say that the man takes his work very seriously.

Kalomirakis is all about delivering a complete experience for his clients. Attention to spatial transitions, the finest quality millwork, custom-made lighting, furniture, and fabrics create the illusion that you’re sitting in the outer lobby of a grand art deco theater such as the aforementioned Eglinton.

One thing that immediately impresses about Theo Kalomirakis is just how much he loves cinema. Even though he possess an encyclopedic level of knowledge about the boxes that are eventually installed in his gorgeous and richly detailed theaters, he would much rather discuss obscure films or the smallest details in the columns that adorn his viewing rooms.

TK theater interview ceilingSitting in one of his completed theaters, you can learn a lot about the man and how every little detail matters to him. Every aspect of the design (even if he doesn’t sell electronic equipment) has to meet the highest possible standards, and that includes everything from the LEDs on the marquee to the acoustic treatments behind every wall and ceiling panel. What makes his theaters so successful is that clients actually feel as if they are not inside their home, but inside a real theater. It’s a feeling of total isolation from the reality that exists upstairs or across the hall; and the picture and sound quality are nothing to sneeze at either.

When Kalomirakis is not rushing from an airport in Hong Kong to another in India, he’s busy contributing to his new online forum “Theo’s Roundtable” where he discusses topics in cinema and the latest trends in home cinema. We were lucky enough to catch up with him and log the following interview. 

Where and how did you get started in the home theater segment?

It was actually by pure accident. In 1986, I started building a theater for myself in my home in Brooklyn, and after going through the process I realized that I had a genuine passion for it and it evolved into a business in 1990.

Was there a particular event or film that inspired you to create some of the world’s most ornate and opulent home theaters?

As much as I love watching films, it was actually my passion for architecture and the classic movie palaces that served as my inspiration. It is my goal with each project to recreate that special place for the client within the confines of their own home.

Are any particular themes more popular among clients?

Our clients generally prefer our traditional themes such as the Paramount, Century, and the Digital Palace, but over the past few years the Art Deco theater has become extremely popular as well. We get a lot of requests now for our Oakland, First Run, and Greenwich themes.

But what about clients who want their home theater to reflect their favorite film or genre, or even a specific place?

Our portfolio of work over the years includes a number of really interesting thematic designs that took those criteria into account, but they are not as popular as you might think. We did one theater with a Chinese theme and while it turned out beyond even my own expectations, it was a long and expensive process.

What is the typical price range for your systems?

One of the misconceptions about my business is that we sell “systems”.  When people use that word, they are referring to electronics and that part of the project is handled by the A/V integrators who recommend their clients to us. Our role is to support the A/V integrator and the choices that they make for the client.

If we sold the equipment as well, it would be biting the hand that feeds us. The choice of equipment is obviously important as part of the overall project, but we are primarily focused on the physical space; the theater room, fabrics, lighting, furniture, flooring, and the acoustics.

The cost of the build-out depends on the scale and complexity of the project, the location, and what the contractor also charges the client.

TK Theater interview theater lights art decoSo excluding the equipment which based on some of the systems you’ve built might cost the client anywhere from $50,000-$500,000, what would be the average range for your part of the project?

Based on the criteria I mentioned to you above, that average price per square foot would be almost $450.

At those prices, is there still a market for that in the United States? How hard was the recession on the industry and did it force you to refocus your business overseas?

2008 was a bad year for everybody, including our industry. Fortunately, in 2010, we saw a sudden surge in the home theater business abroad which more than compensated for the domestic loss of business. Home theater (as it pertains to a dedicated space) is generally contracting in the United States while it is expanding abroad.The housing collapse in the United States had a profound impact on the industry, and we’ve experienced tremendous growth in China, India, Russia, and the Persian Gulf.

Has 3D been a failure? Does that explain why the industry is pushing Ultra HD 4K so hard without any real content or players?

To me, 3D has made the viewing experience even more pleasurable. I do not see it as a failure. More and more 3D movies are coming to the theaters and what comes to a theater makes it eventually to the home. Ultra HD 4K and 3D are the future—as far as I see it. Consumers watch a 3D film at their local theater and are understandably underwhelmed when they watch it at home on a 60-inch HDTV. It is an experience that needs to be viewed on the largest screen possible. 3D is also much more popular in Asia and Europe and our clients demand it.

Take us through the process. How long does it take for a TKT home theater to get designed and built?

The design process usually takes around 2 months, depending on the availability of the client and how involved they get in the project. The construction time really depends on the contractor, the scope and complexity of the project and the actual house itself. We often have to deal with homes that are being built from scratch and that prolongs the work in some cases up to two years.

Have you ever had to say ‘no’ to a client?

We often have to say no to a client and pass on a new project. If the project is not inspiring which means I will not do a good job, I have no problem saying no. Home theater design is a passion for me—not a business.  I need to be excited by the client’s vision (or if I do not have anything substantial to add to it) there is no point in encouraging him or her to spend money. The end- result will not justify the expenditure which is substantial for most people and I value being honest a great deal.

What do you think is the most important part of a home theater?

It is the correct integration of design and technology. You cannot have one without the other. If you ignore design, the theater may sound good but will not look good. If you pay attention to the design and not to the technology which includes the acoustics, sightlines, and isolation from the rest of the house, you’ll have nothing more than a pretty room that underwhelms.

To me, 3D has made the viewing experience even more pleasurable. I do not see it as a failure.

Any particular tips for consumers before they start?

For starters, I think consumers really need to understand that the room is as important as the equipment. We spend a great deal of time designing home theaters that not only recreate the physical experience of watching a film in one of the classic movie palaces of the past, but also at the highest fidelity levels. Behind all of those ornate panels and columns, we create as perfect an acoustic space as we can. If the final product sounds better than any surround sound system the client has ever heard before – we’ve done our job.

Depending on the location of the room, I often encourage our clients to excavate; especially if the project is being built in the basement. There is no question that that adds to the overall cost of the project, but sometimes that extra height makes a huge difference in the final result.

Don’t create platforms out of poured cement. Don’t cover speakers with heavy upholstery material not meant to be placed in front of speakers.  Make sure the walls are not totally reflective; use a proper mix of absorption, diffusive, and reflective materials.

Two very expensive boxes of popcorn.

Regardless of which approach you find more rational or enticing, there is no question that both the Kipnis Sound Standard and TK Theater offer the ultimate home theater experience that very few people will ever be fortunate enough to ever experience, let alone afford.

If we had the means to choose and the patience to watch either one of these two passionate designers build our dream home theater, we would have to vote for Theo Kalomirakis on the design end and Jeremy Kipnis on the equipment side. Both men offer a lifetime of experience and almost fanatical attention to detail that would make the consultation and design process well worth the price of admission.

One can always dream.

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