For family getaways, few locations can compare to Zion National Park, which, clich though it may sound, truly has something for everyone. The park itself is one of the most beautiful in the nation and, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of Southern Utah. With everything from peaceful nature walks to challenging hikes, one is constantly surrounded by majestic sheer rock walls, waterfalls, desert beauty, and rugged forests. In and around the park there are opportunities for rappelling, horseback riding, ATV excursions, zip-lining, and more. Those with more relaxed interests can spend their time getting pampered at day spas, lounging poolside, shopping, and dining.
One major attraction for all is the Zion Canyon Theatre, a state-of-the art movie theatre with a truly enormous screen measuring six stories high. For years the theatre has been showing films made for Zion’s National Park, as well as recent Hollywood hits. They’ve also taken to showing classic films on what is reportedly the largest screen in the state of Utah. Movies such as Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark are being digitally projected onto a screen up to nine times larger than regular theatre screens. As an advocate for classic cinema on the big screen (where it truly belongs), I find this incredibly exciting: some of these films haven’t been seen in theatres for decades, and most have never been shown at such an impressive venue. What’s more, seeing a movie there is currently less expensive than going to your local multiplex. I recently took the opportunity to interview Zion Canyon Theatre Manager Betty Bingham about the theatre, its history, its technical capacities, and the films it chooses to show.
Jonathan Decker– That really is a stunning theatre you have out there, which it’d have to be to match its location, one of the most majestic national parks in the world. What is the history of the theatre? How did it come to be, and how has it changed over the years?
Betty Bingham– The Zion Canyon Theatre opened in May 1994. It was a combined venture between several partners. Steve and Brent Heaton owned the land and the other partners put in the money to build the theatre and film our destination film “Zion Canyon Treasure of the Gods.” At the time IMAX theatres were very popular and a new experience for audiences. Our theatre was the first one with an IWERKS projector instead of an IMAX projector system. The founders of IWERKS started their company after breaking away from IMAX. Our projector was the first prototype IWERKS system. The film ran horizontally through the projector, with the image appearing in stark detail on one of the largest movie screens in the world. A separate six track Dolby stereo sound system was synchronized to the action, with multiple speakers allowing sound to move through, around and behind the audience. Our film Zion Canyon Treasure of the Gods was directed by Keith Merrill (The Testaments, Legacy). The movie was photographed on 70 millimeter film (10 times the ordinary 35 millimeter frame).
Over the years we have seen a lot of changes. We added a 35mm projector in 2000 and started showing classic films at that time. We upgraded the lens so we could get a bigger picture on our giant screen. In June 2008 we upgraded our system to digital. We took out the old 70mm IWERKS projector and replaced it with the Christie Digital CP2000. The sound was upgraded at the same time. At that time we were the largest digital theatre in the Western United states. In November 2008 we added the second Christie Digital CP2000 so we now have stacked projection which allows us to show 3D films. We upgraded our screen at that time to a silver screen. We use the Doremi Filmstore. We were the first digital 3D theatre in Southern Utah at that time. We show 2 large-format films as well as current and classic Hollywood Films.
JD- What is your position with the theatre? What do you do exactly?
BB-I am the theatre manager. I order in the films and work with the studios. I schedule the floor help and projection. I am a back-up projectionist if needed. I do the hiring, ordering of concession products, cleaning supplies, payroll, A/P, advertising, website, Facebook, voucher program and whatever else needs to be done.
JD- Is yours really the largest screen in Utah? Does that include the IMAX screens up north? What are your picture and sound capabilities?
BB- Last time I checked our screen was still the largest. Our screen is 6 stories high and 82 feet across. Our picture is digital and our sound is Dolby 5.1 surround.
JD-What can you tell our readers about the films that are always available there? Why would they want to give them a look?
BB- Zion Canyon Treasure of the Gods is a wonderful, timeless film about Zion National Park. It talks about the history of the people who once lived near the park and their legends on the park. [It also portrays] the first settlers to this area and takes you into the deep recesses of the park that are not accessible to those who visit. This is one of the best large format films ever done. I get many comments on the film and they all say its “breathtaking, the best one I have ever seen.”
JD- For some time you’ve shown mainstream Hollywood films out there, several weeks after they come out in bigger cities. Has that been popular with the local community and with tourists? What have been some of the more memorable screenings you’ve had?
BB- Yes it has, they like to experience these films on the “Giant” screen. We loved doing the Lord of the Rings films and Avatar was huge with our 3D.
JD- Lately you’ve been showing classic Hollywood movies as well. In this era of dwindling theatre ticket sales nationwide (which I find sad), big improvements in home theatre systems, and the regular practice of movie watching on phones and laptops, why should our readers consider taking in an older film at your venue, especially when they may have limited time in the area?
BB- I know that there is so many different ways to watch a movie out there now, and with so many of us owning the films we love on DVD or digitally on our electronic devices it may seem silly to offer these classic films at our theatre, but for those of us who want the experience of seeing our favorite film on the “Giant” screen, we are still excited to be able to do so in theatres like ours. It’s the movie experience that we want, not just watching a film but truly being a part of that film and escaping the world for just a few hours. You only do that when you watch a film on the “Giant” screen. Going to the movies has always been about the experience and I don’t think you can get that anywhere else but the theatre.
So whether you come here and see our classic or current Hollywood films it’s still all about the movie experience you can only get at the theatre.I agree it’s hard to compete with Zion National Park but people do like to come and visit the theatre in the evening when they are finished in the park for the day. They will plan their days around our show times, whether it’s our large format films or our Hollywood films.
JD-How do you go about securing the rights to show these movies? Are they restored or original prints? How do they look and sound at your location?
BB- I have to call the studios and get the OK to show the repertory titles and pay whatever the fee is for that film. Sometimes we do it on a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) if it’s available or on Blu-Ray. How well it looks on the screen depends on the film quality of the print. Some prints have been better than others. I think they look like “classic” films on the giant screen. They have the older look to them which adds to the experience.
JD- What can you tell us about your ticket prices? Do you have any deals for families with children? Combo packs with local restaurants for those who want to make a date of it?
BB- Our ticket prices are $5.00 for adults, $3.00 for children and seniors. We decided to lower our prices to make films more affordable for our guests. We realize that everyone is still struggling and with the price of gas going up it’s hard to plan a trip and come up with the extra to go to a movie. So we decided that we wanted people to experience our theatre and to help them we made it more affordable. Our guests have loved the lower ticket prices.
JD- I must admit, that is definitely attractive as a moviegoer. One last question, on the horizon, what classic movies are you planning on showing? Will you revisit any that you’ve already screened, or is it too soon to tell?
BB- We are planning on E.T, Top Gun, Phantom of the Opera, Goonies, and so many more. We will probably replay the timeless ones like the Indiana Jones films and others. One thing that is certain is change and I’m sure our theatre will always be changing to meet the needs of our guests.
Our thanks from Meridian Magazine to Betty for her time and for her work offering this special opportunity to couples, families, and cinema lovers to see some of their favorites on the big screen where they belong. I will be heading out there next week for a date night with my wife. We’ll be seeing the underrated 2005 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, and I’ll be sharing my experience with you through Meridian, so stay tuned. For more information on the theatre, including contact info, location, and show times, readers can visit www.zioncanyontheatre.com
Jonathan Decker is a marriage and family therapist and family life educator. He has performed in independent films, stage comedy, and vocal competitions. For more of his entertainment pieces, movie reviews, and fun videos, please visit www.mormonmovieguy.com