Dividing Private Theater Budgets into Five Sellable Categories

June 5, 2014

Sam Cavitt (samcavitt@medesign.tv) is president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, Hawaii, and Carlsbad, California.
In a recent workshop on selling high-performance solutions, the question was asked, “What is the first piece of information that you provide to your prospective client?” Almost unanimously the answer was an estimate, price range, or budget. Why?

The reasons all seemed valid. From the responsible, “to qualify them.” to the timorous, “that’s what they want to know.” However, the result is the same: a limiting of the project potential and a failure to properly investigate the opportunity.

It is true that we must qualify our clients, and in more than 20 years of designing high-end private theaters, I have yet to have a project with no budget. But, we have found a better way.

First of all, we do not want to avoid the subject of budgets. Doing so will only put the client off and end up having a similar effect on client communication as dropping an arbitrary price. What we want to do is use the budgetary discussion to assist our efforts to discover and educate and in the process, establish value for the features we wish to promote. Ironically, this process actually involves a more detailed investigation of the budget with our client.

We have broken a private theater budget into five categories. Here they are listed in the sequence that they must occur along with some brief explanation of each category’s significance:

Design and Engineering

Any endeavor with the purpose of delivering high-performance indicates the need for engineering and design. Without these elements, there can be no expectation of acceptable, let alone extraordinary results. Sadly, this is an area that is often not included in many preliminary budgets, and the client is left trying to figure out how to justify an investment they were not informed of. Unfortunately without proper engineering and design, every subsequent dollar spent is at risk.

Shell Construction

Whether a remodel or a new home construction, there has to be a room built for the theater to occupy. Much of the cost of this should not be attributed to the theater budget. Standard building framing, electrical, mechanical and other common structural elements should be part of a rough construction budget that is not reflected. What should be considered are specialty materials and additional labor attributed to quiet room construction, modifications of ventilation systems, additional lighting and control that is specific to the theater functionality, and other design specific modifications. In a new-construction project, these items will be between 30-50 percent of the room’s rough construction budget depending on the complexity and performance of the quiet room construction. In a remodel, that percentage may be much higher or significantly lower for the same reason.


Cavitt’s design team addressed all five budget categories to tailor a private theater to this client’s specific requirements.
Typically this is what the original budget is supposed to cover. Unfortunately, it’s not always accurate. Engineering and design is the only way to properly specify a system that supports a given room size, audience size, and configuration, as well as client expectations. Good, better, best is a poor strategy that is often used in an attempt to simplify this requirement. I have often seen even “best” system specifications woefully wrong and often underspecified for a specific room application.

Interior Construction

Complexity of interior design, selection of materials, even the type of paint finishes can have significant impact on the final cost of the theater interior. We had a recent theater where the original interior budget was based on a paint-grade finish on all millwork. The final finish specification, though, was for a fine lacquer hand-rubbed paint finish with gold detailing. This was not an insignificant increase to the interior budget but was a detail for which the client was willing to pay. That the theater pricing had been broken into the appropriate sub categories made this change transparent, easily explained, and professionally handled.


This relates primarily to seating but can also encompass any other unique and potentially budget-busting furnishings. In the case of seats, variances can be caused by quantity, features, type, and quality. For instance, a theater with a row of four motorized incliner seats and a front row with a lifestyle sectional will have a very different furnishing budget than a theater with two rows of four dual-motorized, steel-framed incliners with seat warming and control system interface (do not underestimate your client’s appreciation for such a quality feature set!) Again, by identifying to the client that this is a separate budget, with unique considerations for features and benefits, a line of communication has been opened and increased customer satisfaction can be delivered.

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