Portlanders love to love their airport. There’s the Powell’s bookstore, Stumptown Coffee, local restaurants, and perhaps the most photographed carpet in the world.
So what else could PDX put in front of passengers?
While other airports add yoga rooms and rooftops pool in the perpetual quest to tempt more travelers (and their dollars), PDX has welcomed an outpost of the iconic Hollywood Theatre to be America’s only airport cinema.
On a typical January morning at the Portland International Airport, a not-so-typical passenger unloaded at the departure drop-off area.
A team used a crane to transfer a 28-foot-long sign from a flatbed trailer to a set of wheels. Anyone who’s driven down Portland’s Sandy Boulevard would recognize it: It’s styled after the Hollywood Theatre marquee.
“I get goose bumps watching it roll in,” said Hollywood’s executive director, Doug Whyte, in front of the Delta ticketing booth as the team pushed the sign past the Portland Roasting Company kiosk. “Usually things come in through the causeway, but it’s too big, so we actually have to bring it in through the front door. And it has to go through TSA, so it should be an interesting day to say the least.”
Since taking over in 2011, Whyte has overseen the transformation of the nonprofit theater into one of the leading art house cinemas in the country. Then he read an article about an Imax theater at the Hong Kong airport and saw an opportunity to reach a bigger audience: some 18 million pairs of eyes a year.
“We approached the airport, and funny enough they had actually been thinking it would be cool to have a movie theater,” he said. “It was kismet. We worked it out so it could go under their public art program.”
With a dozen exhibitions by local artists ever year, the public art program is just one of the many amenities that regularly ranks PDX as the country’s best airport.
“It can be a little bit stressful to travel, and one of the things we found helps soothe the travel stress: music, artwork, and now we’ll have a theater too,” said Kama Simonds, the airport spokesperson for the Port of Portland.
Simonds traces the roots of the art program back to the 1980’s and the airports then ground-breaking decision to court local businesses instead of generic chains. The introduction of security checkpoints after the 9/11 terrorism attack increased the push for concessions post-security, and PDX has ramped up even more in the past few years with a three-phase redevelopment project. They’ve already completed the first two phases: to inject more local retail and coffee offerings. The next phase is increasing the local food offerings, as they transition the temporary food carts into permanent restaurants.
"The idea is to make the airport very reflective of the community it serves,” said Simonds, “and by doing that, we have a lot of small independent leases and agreements with local businesses.”
Yoga Rooms, Art Galleries, Golf Course, Oh My!
The Airports Council International–North America shared preliminary findings with OPB from its forthcoming passenger amenities survey. Of responding airports:
· 70.8 percent have an in-terminal art program or art gallery
· 51.4 percent offer live music concerts in the terminal
· 72.2 percent provide local tourist or traveler information services
· 5.6 percent have an on-airport golf course
· 93.1 percent have a restaurant or bar
· 54.2 percent have a wine bar or winery
· 8.3 percent have a yoga or relaxation room
PDX has been on the front lines of a lower stratosphere space race to tempt travelers into spending more time and money on the concourse. In addition to an increasing focus on local businesses, there's the wilder amenities: There's an ice rink in Seoul's Incheon Airport and a four-story slide and entertainment park in Singapore. The Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport offers roaming therapy dogs to assuage nervous travelers, but they're easily outdone by Cincinnati and San Francisco, which offer miniature therapy horses and pigs, respectively.
Barn animals not your thing? Chicago's O'Hare and Midway both have yoga rooms, and the San Diego Airport awards performing arts residencies.
The results have been good for business, helping airports to recover from both 9/11 and the recession through a more robust diversity of income streams. Between 2001 and 2014, revenue from concessions grew 76 percent to $1.8 billion nationally, according to the trade group Airports Council International–North America.
So perhaps it was just a matter of time before movie theaters started popping up.
Having cleared security, the team rolled the Hollywood marque down the C Concourse — over some of the most iconic carpet in the country — to its space between gates C3 and C5. Before they hoisted it into place, they couldn’t resist plugging it in. The whole concourse lit up with a neon blaze — something that’s forbidden in other airport signs.
“When we started, the question was, Can we do this?” said Whyte. “And they were like, well, we’re not a typical concessionaire, and it’s under the public art program, so we got it approved to use the neon.”
PDX agreed to donated the space — one of those now-outdated business service centers full of cubicles and outlets — for at least three years. Whyte and his team then took a year to get funding to permit, design and build out the modern, micro-theater with a donated top-shelf projector and sound system.
They’re going to offer about an hour of looped programming by local filmmakers, including fiction, documentary, and animated short films, as well as music videos. They’ll swap out the films every quarter or so and hope to collaborate with arts and culture nonprofits around the state on future programming, including the possibility for live streaming.
The theater will be free to all, and it began to garner looks before the marquee was even raised.
"I think it's awesome: I mean, how Portland is that?" said Leslie Galvin, as she stopped to snap a picture. "It goes along perfectly with all the other artisanal things we have going on here."
And like Paul Garland, many passing travelers said they'd stop in: "We have a delayed flight. Maybe a movie instead of a bar, ya know?"
The Hollywood Theatre airport outpost will open later this month.