Designed for fun! A new way to play

Metreon tries to pry Americans away from their couches and computer

Unmistakably big and splashy, the new Metreon entertainment center in the heart of San Francisco is also designed to perplex.

"We know a lot of people are walking up to it and saying, 'What is it?' " says Michael Swinney, president of Sony Development, builder of the new complex.

If that's not exactly your grandfather's idea of sure-fire consumer marketing, it's nonetheless working. This block-long entertainment zone, which opened in June, is drawing throngs - 1 million at last count - despite, or perhaps because of, its peculiar identity.

Regarded as a cutting-edge example of how to hold the interest and tap the wallets of busy urbanites, Metreon is part movie complex, part theme park, and part mall.

Just ask the vacationing Murrays of Salt Lake City. "It's really a video arcade," says Mrs. Murray, looking at her husband for confirmation. "Well, it's really more of an entertainment center," says husband Bill.

If Jeremy Schwartz is reading the tea leaves right, Metreon is a premier example of an exploding new industry that will rack up $9 billion in sales nationwide by 2004. The analyst at Forrester Research calls the complexes "experience zones" and predicts they'll effectively counterattack the increasing appeal of staying at home and having fun online, traipsing to the suburban mall, or heading way out yonder to a theme park.

Entertainment and shopping have been creeping ever closer for years, though the trend has largely brought movies and other forms of recreation into complexes designed primarily for retail shopping. Minnesota's Mall of America became a premier example when it opened its doors in 1992. The huge, sprawling complex combines an amusement park with a shopping mall housing more than 400 stores.

Metreon, and those complexes that may follow it, is carving out a different market. Its location and patrons are urban. Rather than attempting to offer everything a shopper could want, it's tightly focused on "experience" shopping, or goods and products that relate to entertainment.

While no one expects developments like Metreon to replace malls, they do have potential to bring a new concept - one based primarily on entertainment and "experience" rather than retail goods - to the evolution of the mall, industry experts say.

Metreon's gray metal skin, computerized kiosks, state-of-the-art electronics retail outlets, and futuristic games arcade are all befitting this city's proximity to Silicon Valley and its own growing multimedia prowess.

After all, Metreon is Sony's attempt to extend its name beyond the slick electronic goods for which it is famous worldwide.

Here, there is an emphasis on customer involvement. Every Sony Playstation game is available and begging to be tried out. Virtually every model of the company's TVs, video cameras, and music systems is on display, not to mention an interactive display of its most futuristic products.

You can stop by the Hear Music store and run any CD you like, unopened, across a scanner that queues it up for your headphone-listening pleasure. "Try before you buy" is not only allowed, but encouraged.

While there are plenty of products to buy at Metreon, its core is a 15-theater cineplex that includes a giant Sony IMAX screen. The other 14 screens are large and have the new stadium-style seating. While many theater complexes are bigger, this one already regularly leads the nation in attendance.

That's partly because of pent-up demand. San Francisco, like many cities, has had a hard time finding the real estate for the multiscreen theater complexes so popular these days. Consequently, the screens-per-capita ratio in many urban areas is low, forcing patrons out to the suburbs for movie entertainment.

Metreon was able to find space in a large redevelopment zone in what used to be San Francisco's bedraggled South of Market Street area of flophouses, warehouses, and light industry.

In fact, Metreon is one major piece in a 20-year effort to transform that area. A short walk away is the city's new Museum of Modern Art, a convention center, new hotels, and a children's discovery museum. A slightly longer walk soon will put you at the turnstiles of the new baseball park for the San Francisco Giants.

All those facilities actually feel closer, though, given the architecture of Metreon. While its sleek front is virtually windowless, its back is four stories of aqua-colored glass that opens to the Yerba Buena Park just outside its door. This gives the entire facility a light, open feeling, furthered by the restaurant patios that overlook the park and command a spectacular skyline view.

Inside, Metreon is all sharp angles and industrial colors.

While developed by Sony at a cost of $85 million, Metreon includes a lot of business partners, too. There is a Discovery Channel store, Microsoft's first retail outlet, and a host of small retail kiosks meant to emulate a street fair of local artisans.

One of Metreon's boldest moves was to build two children's attractions based on the works of popular writers Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are") and David Macaulay ("The Way Things Work").

Then there is the cavernous Air Tight Garage, based on the comic book designs of Jean "Moebius" Giraud, a French comic-strip artist who has contributed production designs for movies such as "Alien," "Willow," and more recently "The Fifth Element." In molded play stations with adjustable back rests, players join teams in a virtual "capture the flag" game that can become intensely competitive.

Nearby is virtual bowling, which has a fingertip-controlled roller to navigate an on-screen ball through various obstacle courses toward the pins.

Metreon is rounded out with 10 restaurants, ranging from the health-conscious fare of local favorites like Longlife Noodle Company to pizza at Firewood Cafe. For something more upscale, there is the Montage.

Looked at in total, Metreon is meant to provide one-stop entertainment for a family whose tastes run the gamut. Bouncing from a restaurant to a movie in a parking-space-challenged city like San Francisco can be a real chore. Metreon brings patrons a good meal, a film, occasional live entertainment, and even a little shopping, without their having to move the car once.

Sony hopes to try the concept next in Chicago, and then possibly New York. Analyst Schwartz of Forrester Research says Disney and Sega are also creating "entertainment zones" in urban areas, though without the movie theaters that are at the core of Sony's concept.

Schwartz's view of Metreon is that it's the first of its kind. But almost certainly not the last.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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