A young man stands on a Portland roof, looking at the stars. Pan out, and take in the 130-inch screen on which this scene is playing, and this miniature movie theater’s 17 seats, almost all occupied. Pan out again, beyond the soundproof cinema walls, to the teal-carpeted airport concourse, between departure gates C3 and C5, outside the Hollywood Theatre’s new annex at Portland International Airport. This is the country’s first state-of-the-art airport movie theater, and it’s playing to full houses.
“It began with reading a New York Times article about a cinema in Hong Kong’s airport: an IMAX with 350 seats,” says Doug Whyte, executive director of the nonprofit 91-year-old movie house and de facto community center on NE Sandy Boulevard. He and Justen Harn, a former Hollywood colleague who now works at the media-access organization Open Signal, thought Portland should have its own version. “We just rang the airport up and pitched them the idea,” Whyte says.
PDX—which, with outposts of Blue Star Donuts, Powell’s Books, Stumptown, and its very own food cart pod, has become a kind of microcosmic indie Portland—was interested, and came up with a former office space in C concourse for the purpose. Whyte and Harn envisioned a big TV screen in a “more lounge-like [setting], where people could stand on the concourse and see what’s happening”; the Minneapolis airport has a screening room roughly along those lines. They started landing grants—the Oregon Community Fund, Travel Oregon, the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Cultural Trust—and drawing up designs.
That was 2014. Plot twist! Portland home theater specialists Triad Speakers offered a $50,000 sound system and connections to other companies eager to join a novel experiment. “We ended up with something like a $200,000 system,” says Whyte; benefactors donated a projector, sound processors, and more.
The result is most likely the best place to watch a film in any airport in the country: a den of high-quality audio and video tucked where travelers might ordinarily expect to find a Wolfgang Puck spin-off. The creators sought out programming ambitious enough to match the environment. Whyte and Alison Hallett, the Hollywood’s director of marketing and community engagement, asked local filmmakers for shorts under 10 minutes long. The caveat? They had to be essentially G-rated, and the Port of Portland had to approve every one.
“They said they want people to feel better after they’ve walked out than before they went in,” says Whyte of the airport’s aesthetic leanings. He laughs. “Independent filmmakers don’t necessarily make films like that.”
Still, Whyte and Hallett came up with a one-hour loop of 10 shorts to launch the microcinema, ranging from a documentary on the disappearance of the Pacific lamprey to that footage of a Portland stargazer, from Josh Lunden’s short Modern Dark. Next month, the original lineup gives way to a whole new program—including a short from Blue Chalk Media about the making of the new cinema itself—for a three-month run.
The airport’s mini-Hollywood has been consistently packed. While it has only 17 seats to fill at any one time, visitors’ average stay of 20 minutes means a lot of eyes on filmmakers’ work. “It’s definitely been a success already, just in the first few weeks,” says Whyte, who now fields calls from national and international press and has seen a huge uptick in film submissions since the cinema opened. And all around the country, cinephiles are taking note. “We’ve had at least six theaters contact me about doing it in their airports,” says Whyte.
As he and I speak, glaze-eyed cinema goers emerge from the dark confines of the PDX Hollywood into the bright buzz of the concourse, luggage lolling behind them. Annette Boswell from Southeast Portland arrived early for her Phoenix flight and stopped in for a gander. “I love it!” she pronounces as she emerges, blinking in the airport light. Then, in a spirit of ownership that speaks to how intensely Portlanders identify with their gateway to the world beyond: “Aren’t we great?”