Forever 74 Degrees: How Movie Theaters Keep Cool During Summer's Scorching Months

Outside of Movie Theater - Generic Art - 2004
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Yes, there is a baseline number maintained across most theaters -- but keeping it there is harder than you might think.

In 1925, Willis Carrier convinced Paramount Pictures that it would vastly increase ticket sales if the studio were to install his invention, which he patented in 1902 under the name "Apparatus for Treating Air," in their movie theaters. Thousands of curious patrons lined up outside the brand-new Rivoli Theater in Times Square that Memorial Day weekend to experience the "cool comfort" awaiting them inside. Among them was Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, who quietly took a seat in the balcony and observed.

After a stalled start and much grumbling among the skeptical crowd, the world's first movie air conditioning system at last kicked in. Hand fans ceased to flutter as the heat and mugginess gradually vanished from the room. "Yes," Zukor later declared in the lobby. "The people are going to like it." And they did: Over the next five years, Carrier installed his technology in 300 movie theaters around the country, transforming the summer months -- previously a box-office wasteland -- into Hollywood's most profitable season.  

It's now 2013, and summers are hotter than ever -- 2001 to 2010 was the warmest decade on record, with thermostats steadily rising -- and AC remains a key enticement for movie theater owners. For AMC Theatres, the country's second-largest movie theater chain, that means maintaining strict temperature levels across their 6,000 auditoriums.

"Our standard temperature in theaters circuit-wide across the country is 74 degrees in the summer months and 70 degrees in the winter months," says Andy DiOrio, AMC's director of corporate communications. "We give our management team the authority to make minor adjustments based on guest feedback in extreme climates."

Maintaining that temperature is not as easy as it sounds. The stadium-style seating that has become the norm in today's multiplexes can leave upper seats too warm and lower seats too cold. Plus theaters cycle from empty to crowded and back again every two hours, placing uneven demand on heating, ventilation and air conditioning units. 

Evenly cooling a multiplex is therefore a costly, complicated and, not surprisingly, energy-depleting enterprise. Keeping customers comfortable inside AMC's Orleans 8 theater in Philadelphia, for example, required a 40-ton behemoth of a unit installed on the roof, which normally takes about a month for a company like Trane, a leading supplier of movie theater "comfort systems," to build and ship.

To optimize energy costs and avoid waste, Trane analyzes information entered weekly into computers by movie theater managers, helping it to anticipate a theater's temperature needs. Looking at advance ticket sales can further help avoid over-conditioning, so that abandoned After Earth showings don't wind up chilled like a meat locker.

There's also the issue of sound: Movie theater operators require the perceptible decibel-levels of AC units -- which can run quite high -- to remain low enough so as not to disturb customers' enjoyment of summer blockbusters' exceedingly rare, quieter moments. 

Invariably, a climate control unit will break down -- as the (since shuttered) Orleans 8's did in 2004 -- and costs can skyrocket, particularly when theaters are forced to shut down during repairs. "The first and most important thing is for all our guests to be comfortable, and no one’s going to be comfortable if they’re sweating in their auditorium," DiOrio says.

"Typically, if an AC unit completely goes down, we’re constantly monitoring the buildings," he adds. "Only in extreme cases, if something goes completely out and it won't be fixed for an indeterminate amount of time, will we take the steps to close the building."

For the average moviegoer, it all adds up to some heavenly respite from the oppressive, triple-digit temperatures that grip the country this time each year. Price Peterson, a 32-year-old comedy writer living in Los Angeles, recalls a particularly scorching afternoon in Palm Springs that led him to a movie he'd not otherwise have seen.

"I saw John Carter mostly to stay cool, but unfortunately my brain still got burnt," Peterson says.

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch