The Extreme Screen at Union Station has gone as dark as the bottom of the ocean, where it was supposed to be taking audiences with James Cameron’s “Ghosts of the Abyss.”
But just a couple of weeks into its run — timed to coincide with the Titanic exhibit — the cumbersome projection system broke down.
Turning frustration into opportunity, Union Station officials decided to scrap the old Iwerks system and go digital. They will transform the huge theater into a high-tech teleconferencing center that they hope will become a vital education and business asset for the city.
The project already has enthusiastic support.
“We’re very excited for our members, who will be able to use that space to demonstrate their products, host events and communicate around the world with 3D capabilities on a really large screen,” said Ryan Weber, president of KCnext, an organization that calls itself the Technology Council of Greater Kansas City, with offices in Union Station. It has 81 members, from small startups to Google, Garmin and Cerner.
The project is also welcomed by the Kansas City Area Development Council, which decided not to build its own teleconferencing area when it moved into Union Station because it believed something better would come.
“This is fabulous news to us,” said ADC President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Marcusse. “We envision it becoming far more than a conventional asset, with the latest and greatest technology that is available. Anything that puts us on the cutting edge as we sell Kansas City is all to the good.”
Union Station CEO George Guastello envisions the screen connecting participants from China to New York with a Kansas City host on stage, interacting with an audience of 400 people in the theater and all of them taking advantage of high band-width, streaming capabilities.
The theater would still be used to present documentaries and commercial entertainment in eye-popping size with a higher resolution than film. But it would also complement Union Station’s business strategy to be a civic anchor with an emphasis on science and technology.
And the money-pit Extreme Screen — they’re working on a new name — could become a significant revenue source as well. In addition to teleconferences, the space would be available for meetings, catered events and even live performances. It could also be a place for community watch parties of major events.
“It makes more economic sense,” Guastello said of the new vision for the theater.
Officials expect that the initial conversion to install digital projectors will cost $350,000. To get the fund-raising started, the Goppert Foundation of Kansas City agreed to make a $150,000 challenge grant. Union Station hopes other donors will meet and surpass that within a few months.
The next step would be to find a partner to add high-speed Internet capabilities, said Jerry Baber, chief financial officer for Union Station. A third step would be to use that platform to develop a “21st Century Learning Lab.”
The Kansas City Public Library, in partnership with Union Station, was among 12 entities across the country to receive a $100,000 planning grant for that project from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Library and station officials hope to make the cut for the next, implementation round of that competitive grant program.
“We want the digital projectors now that will feed the next two levels,” said Baber, adding that the teleconferencing center and learning lab could be in place in two or three years.
The Extreme Screen theater was built a dozen years ago with the restored train depot and Science City. It has thrilled audiences with films such as “Dinosaurs Alive! 3D” and “The Polar Express” on a 76-foot wide screen that towers more than 55 feet high.
But the 20th century Iwerks technology involved huge film “platters” that had to have their own cooling system. The projection bulbs frequently burned out and cost several thousands of dollars to replace.
One of the two projection systems in the Extreme Screen failed completely a couple of years ago, eliminating the ability for Union Station to show 3D films. Guastello said it was just a matter of time before a decision had to be made about the future of the theater. The failure of the second projection system in mid-March forced that decision.
Union Station is now looking for the best deal among vendors for the digital projection system. They need two projectors in order to show 3D.
Officials are planning other alterations to the 15,000-square-foot theater space, as well, including building a stage at the base of the screen. Removing the top rows of seats would create room for a reception area.
The theater would remain an important complement to Science City and special exhibits. Other Union Station tenants, which have played a large role in stabilizing the station’s finances, may also find a new teleconferencing center useful. They include the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute.
Union Station board Chairman Mike Haverty said the repurposed theater fits the station’s business plan.
“Union Station is Kansas City’s civic center and is constantly alive with activity that attracts many people from the region and visitors to our city,” Haverty said. “Establishing a new digital, large-screen theater will be one more tremendous asset that Union Station can offer to the community.”