BY ANNLEE ELLINGSON
Illustration by Mark Matcho
"A $35 Movie Ticket?" the headlines screamed. "No, absolutely not," one blogger wrote. "Not just no, but hell to the no!" When Australian-based entertainment company Village Roadshow announced in March that it would be bringing its luxury Gold Class Cinemas to the United States, the press led with the concept's elevated ticket price.
Like previous generations of showmen who countered the declining turnstiles of the TV era with larger (Cinerama) and deeper (3-D) screens, exhibitors are looking for ways to drum up attendance. In addition to the implementation of digital cinema, which promises a bright, clear, steady presentation—and yes, 3-D 2.0—cinema operators are enhancing amenities both in the auditorium and at the concessions stand.
Not everyone in the industry agrees, however, that the luxury cinema business model will work—or that it provides the premium experience it claims.
Well, that's kind of the point.
"We give people a luxury experience from the moment that they book their tickets to the moment they leave," says Kirk Senior, CEO of Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas, from his home base in Australia, where these luxury movie houses have been in operation for a decade. There, 10 stand-alone theaters, ranging from 2 to 6 screens with 20 to 40 seats each, play the biggest day-and-date international blockbusters.
Amenities such as reserved seating and on-site restaurant dining have become de rigueur for high-end multiplexes such as Pacific Theatres' ArcLight and National Amusements' Cinema De Lux. And a handful of small chains—including Movie Tavern and Studio Movie Grill—combine the traditional dinner and a movie into one experience. But the premier, in-seat dining cinema experience is being taken to the extreme by companies banking on luxury moviegoing for an exclusive audience.
At Village Roadshow's American Gold Class locations, seats will be reserved online. When moviegoers arrive at the eight-screen theater, their car will be valet parked, and they will enter a lobby with the look and feel of a boutique hotel. In lieu of a box office, they will be greeted by a concierge and move into a foyer furnished with artwork, soft lighting and comfortable furniture. They will be offered a drink from the bar and a menu for seasonal, chef-driven cuisine prepared in a full commercial kitchen.
When the auditorium is ready, patrons will be ushered to fully motorized armchair recliners, arranged in pairs. There will be no more than 40 seats per theater. Servers will arrive with their food before or at the very beginning of the film, and additional mid-movie drink or dessert orders can be placed by pushing a call button at each seat.
"Other than the fact that we sell tickets, have restrooms, and have a screen, those are about the only similarities [to typical moviegoing]," says Jeremy Welman, COO of Cobb Theatres' CineBistro, a similar luxury concept which debuted in May in the Miami area, albeit at the bargain price of $15-$17.
Addressing stagnant admissions over the last 10 years, exhibitors hope indulgence will fill more seats more often by enticing underserved aging boomers. "Just looking at the demographics of the U.S. population, it's getting older," says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "The fastest-growing group is the 40 and older. And they're also a group that over the last couple of years we've been seeing going to the theater more often than they used to."
These older moviegoers, however, "don't necessarily like going with a bunch of rowdy teenagers," Corcoran adds. Luxury cinemas offer a different kind of experience for those who can afford to pay for it.
"We are really catering towards people that love movies [but] maybe have written off the moviegoing experience because it's been geared so towards kids and families, with video games in the lobby, big buildings with 18 screens and kids running around and on their cell phones and talking," Welman says. "There are people that love movies, and they just want a more adult experience."
Exhibitors anticipate that by expanding the audience with varied cinema experiences, filmmakers will respond in kind with differentiating content. "It's really hoping that if there's an audience that is more discerning, that's more mature and has a broader sense of what film can be, and you're not just appealing to the teenagers and the young adults, that it will expand the kind of movies we're getting," says Corcoran.
Some exhibitors, however, question whether this segment of the moviegoing population is large enough to support stand-alone luxury cinemas and criticize the model for emulating the home-theater or screening-room experience.
"1.5 million people attend the Palace theater here in Boca Raton, [Fla.]," says Michael J. Whalen Jr., president and CEO of Muvico Theaters, a pioneer in premier exhibition that builds palatial, themed theaters with amenities like child care at every site. "Of that, 200,000 of them go upstairs [to our VIP area]. We still have 1.3 million people downstairs."
Like Gold Class and CineBistro, Muvico's Premier theaters offer valet parking, fine dining and luxurious seating to discerning moviegoers. "That all said, I'm not a big believer in all-premier theaters," Whalen says. "To build a business plan around just a 21-and-over premier concept for everyone doesn't make economic sense to us because that audience segment is just not big. They go on average maybe once or twice a year, and so you may get them to go a little bit more, but the majority of your business is kids."
Instead, Muvico offers a VIP gallery in the same auditorium—with the same big screen—as the general audience, kind of like box seating at Dodger Stadium. "People go to the movies because they want to get out of their home, they want to sit in a socialized setting, and they want to enjoy the laughter of others," Whalen says. "When you get into a 40-seat screening room, you've taken away the reality of why someone wants to go to a movie. If I want to sit in a sofa or whatever and eat food and watch a movie, I'm going to do that in my home."
But luxury cinema operators are quick to quash concerns that movie theaters are looking to home-entertainment systems for inspiration. "If you've got an auditorium at home that has a [33-foot] screen and state-of-the-art technology and 3-foot-wide armchair recliners, and you've got people that are willing to serve you wonderful food and great cocktails and wine, then it may well be [like a home theater]," Gold Class' Senior says. "Otherwise it's nothing like it."
Still, if this trend in luxury exhibition is any indication, the 1,000-seat theater-with screens two or three times the size of those found in Gold Class auditoriums—could be permanently usurped by smaller, more controlled environments.
"I'm a huge fan of the art deco movie houses, and in my early days, I ran many of them," CineBistro's Welman says. "But that was a different era. People knew how to behave in public. You could get a thousand people in a room together, and everybody respected one another, [but] those days are long gone... [Luxury cinemas are] smaller, more intimate, but it's still 58–78 people sitting in a room laughing and crying at the same scenes, a communal experience... It's just you're sharing it with a few less people and a whole lot less rowdy people."
Filmmakers may well worry that these luxury cinema concepts are just trading one distraction—rowdy crowds—for another—rattling dinner plates and roaming waiters. But Welman insists, "We want to protect the suspension of disbelief [in the auditorium]. That's really important." To that end, CineBistro encourages moviegoers to arrive early to place their orders. Food is delivered within six to eight minutes before the movie starts or during the trailers, a last call is announced prior to showtime, and "once that feature starts, our service disappears."
Although Gold Class Cinemas does offer call-button wait service throughout the presentation, Senior describes his staff as "black ghosts." Seats are arranged so that servers are as inconspicuous as possible, and the menu avoids knives and forks clinking on china.
Senior is confident in this model—in addition to Australia, Gold Class has successfully expanded to Greece and Singapore—but he looks forward to the opportunity to demonstrate the concept to American audiences when the first two sites open in Chicago and Seattle in October, followed by more than 50 locations in all major U.S. cities over the next five years.
For some it might seem like dinner theater goes to the movies, but for supporters like Senior, "This is exactly how movies should be watched. This is going to bring a larger, more sophisticated audience... to enjoy the movies that these great directors and producers make."