Bringing the theater home; Entertainment: Ordinary folks are spending big to turn their spare rooms into state-of-the art home theaters.


As if Jim Carrey's mouth weren't big enough, imagine it as a 3-foot expanse plastered across a wall in your home. A curling tongue that grabs you with a reach farther than Ally McBeal's. Music so jarring you'd think a boom box was planted beneath your feet.

You're having a film experience within the privacy of your home -- and without having to pay $7 for a ticket and more for popcorn, Goobers and Raisinettes.

Theaters, once limited to mansions of the well-to-do, are appearing in homes near you -- those of middle-class consumers spending from $2,000 for a simple 27-inch television, videocassette recorder and recliner to $300,000 for a state-of-the-art system with 9-foot screen, Dolby sound, DVD player and theater-style seating.

"We feel a home theater is whatever makes you feel involved and engrossed in a film," said Randy Massey of Electronic Home Consultants, an Atlanta home theater designer.

One in five households has a home theater system, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, at an average cost of $3,500. A survey of homebuyers by Builder magazine found that, given a choice of a theater, study or extra bedroom, the majority would opt for a theater.

That's because as demand has grown, the cost of electronics has decreased in recent years. The $10 billion home theater and home automation industry is growing so fast that deliveries for custom-order amenities such as theater seating can take six months.

At the same time, more baby boomers are staying at home -- especially as technology advances, yielding sound systems that surpass the quality in commercial theaters and high-definition televisions that provide filmlike images.

So, as the holiday retail season heats up, who are these cinema lovers willing to pay as much money for a theater as some do for a house?

Most are high-end consumers for whom theaters, like pools and home gyms, have become a status symbol. Some are die-hard movie buffs, while others prefer to entertain friends with beer and popcorn rather than champagne and canapes. Still others are parents who have discovered a convenient means for keeping teens at home -- or in Jim and Susan Anderson's case, for luring them back.

The two were struck by one thought last year while watching Massey demonstrate equipment they would buy: "He put on a DVD of 'Twister,' and it was so spectacular I said if I were to do anything like this in our home, the boys would move back home," Jim Anderson said.

He was partially right. Their son, Blake Morley, is back at home, enjoying the theater his parents had built in the basement of their Brookhaven, Ga., home. The 16-by-20-foot room is the center of an entertainment level that begins with a wet bar and pair of wine cellars designed with an European feel. Visitors enter a small lobby through 150-year-old doors salvaged from an Indonesian temple before settling into the 12-seat theater.

Not all theaters are so elaborate. The typical job for Music Masters is a 32-inch television, receiver system and speakers, totaling $3,000 to $5,000. "Popcorn machines, seating and lighting are a whole other budget," owner Chris Keeler said.

"The best results come from a room dedicated for a theater, not anything else," he said. "Often, people will set up a sound system in a room where the fireplace is the focal point, and they try to hide all the electronics. We call that 'technological denial.' "

What are the basic components of the typical home theater? A large-screen television or movie screen, a video projector system, a surround-sound system with multiple speakers and, as digital video discs touting high-quality sound become mass-marketed, a DVD player.

For a quality entry-level system, expect to spend at least $10,000, said Massey, whose business specializes in high-end screen theaters. Construction costs also weigh in. Acoustical panels, necessary for delivering quality sound insulated from the rest of the house, average $8,000. And, by the time they've spent that much, most consumers want to be pampered by the right atmosphere. The big ticket among decorating costs is seating, which can range from $350 to $1,000 per seat for custom-built loungers, Massey said. (That doesn't include cocktail tables, rope floor lighting, carpeting, microwaves, small refrigerators and other amenities.)

The bottom line for a 10- to 12-seat theater can easily reach $50,000.

For Robin Cutshaw, who spent three years researching and planning for electronics before renovating his basement, installing a theater is much like building a home; the costs nearly always exceed budget. His advice: "Double your budget. You'll constantly hear, 'For $3,000 more, you can get this or that.' "

But if that budget is limited, get the best electronics you can for your money, said Terry Massey, Randy's wife and business partner. "It doesn't work to put so much of your money into the decor until there's not enough left for the electronics."

The costs for retrofitting a house for a theater aren't much more than for new construction, depending on how complicated it is to wire an older home, Terry Massey said.

For Doug Candler and Craig Dick, the renovations to their basement proved a little more extensive. "It was quite a transformation," Candler said.

Adding a theater required raising the basement ceiling and building a platform for elevated seating.

"The only problem is we can't use the theater during parties because the living room is directly overhead," said Candler, a videographer. "When someone walks across the floor, the projector jiggles."

The 12-by-24-foot room is ideal dimensionally. The rule of thumb, Keeler said, is that theaters should be rectangular, with a length at least 1 1/2 times the width.

Screen width should be four to seven times the number of feet between it and the seats. Massey's most popular size is 110 inches.

Because of sound, most theaters are placed in the basement.

On the terrace level of their new home, Sandy Hartman and Suzi Berliner blended a theater with an entire entertainment area, complete with sectional sofa, wet bar and nostalgic pieces such as a 1940s candy machine and old drive-in speakers.

Some homeowners have taken theaters so far as to include built-in ticket booths and popcorn machines.

Yet, most are concerned with what's on the screen, designers said.

"I think most people are pretty happy with just a couple of comfy chairs," Keeler said. "You can always do microwave popcorn."

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