Now showing: luxury seating, finer dining at moviehouses

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionDecember 9, 2013 

If you plan to see The Hunger Games or The Hobbit this holiday season, you might be tempted to bring a blanket and pillow to settle in at a few select movie houses.

Some movie theaters have been redesigned to make watching the big screen as attractive as it has become at home, with in-theater dining; expanded drink selections, including alcoholic beverages; and seats that recline almost like beds.

And don't worry about that guy who is always getting up to go to the bathroom, forcing you to stand up to let him by. Legroom between rows also has been expanded so moviegoers can remain supine.

The upgrades are part of a move designed by big theater chains to lure back consumers who have decreased their movie outings, even with the advent of bigger screens, 3-D and IMAX sound, experts say.

Escalating ticket prices, concession selections that haven't improved in more than two decades, and the explosion of 60-inch TVs with surround sound systems in the home have given consumers a viable option to spending $20 at theaters, where they may be greeted by stale popcorn, sticky floors and crying babies.

"Dinner and a movie, which is an American pastime, was becoming dinner or a movie," said Jeremy Welman, chief operating officer of Birmingham, Ala.-based Cobb Theatres, which owns theaters in five states but none in Kentucky. "We're making movie-going an event again."

So instead of settling for hot dogs or nachos with the gooey, questionable cheese sauce, some theaters offer menus with glazed shrimp, pork belly skewers and Tuscan pepperoni flatbread pizzettas. There are premium wines, Long Island iced teas, mojitos and Coca-Cola's Freestyle fountain machines with their more than 100 flavor combinations.

The theaters also come with service suggestive of restaurant or hotel quality.

The changes are a far cry from the industry's last big upgrade project. A decade ago, theaters spent millions upgrading 3-D capabilities, expanding IMAX screens and adding stadium seats, a new design of chairs and row alignment that dramatically improved visibility.

Don't expect the new line of upgraded theaters to become the norm. Tickets are often pricier, some limit times when children can be admitted, and providing more leg room means downsizing the number of available seats, experts said.

Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said there is a misconception that there is one theater demographic. Operators across the nation are tailoring their businesses for a host of different moviegoers, from those catering to families to empty-nesters out on date night.

The strategy seems to be paying off.

Ryan Noonan, a spokesman for AMC Theaters, said upgrades have created buzz on social media and are driving up attendance. (Noonan did not provide specific numbers. Wanda Group, the owner of AMC Entertainment Holdings, is taking the company public with an initial public offering soon.)

"The end result is that we're seeing not only more visits from our regular guests, but also new moviegoers who may not have been to an AMC in a while," he said. "At the locations where we've done these renovations, the increase in attendance and the feedback we're getting is incredible."

There's an AMC movie theater in Newport, Ky.

It's a needed boost. Admissions for theaters across the board in the United States and Canada peaked at 1.57 billion in 2002 and have been struggling to get back to that number ever since, according to statistics from the National Association of Theater Owners. Admissions were at 1.36 billion last year.

Box office grosses, however, hit a record $10.79 billion in 2012, mostly due to increased ticket prices. The average ticket price was $7.96 in 2012, up from $5.80 in 2005, according to NATO figures.

Changes at the upgraded theaters also come at a cost, for both the consumer and theater owners.

Elaborate concession menus are pricier than the typical popcorn-soda combo deals, mimicking charges found at sit-down restaurants. Admission costs also are often higher. Some theaters require tickets be purchased online for assigned seating and include fees similar to those attached to concerts or Broadway plays.

Theater operators also may remove as much as 70 percent of a moviehouse's traditional seating capacity to accommodate the reclining seats, which are large enough that all patrons have individual arm rests. Expanded leg room and chairs large enough to accommodate small tables for dining also encroach on space.

"While those features mean we can't cram guests into an auditorium like some other theaters, what we've found is when we focus on the guest and deliver the best possible experience, they're coming out more often and they're coming out in greater numbers," Noonan said.

Some theaters also restrict children after 6 p.m., further reducing potential sales.

But the investment has been positive, said Samantha Owens, a spokeswoman for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Regal Cinemas, which has updated some theaters. In Lexington, the Regal Cinema is at Hamburg.

"Guests have been excited about our new menu and lounge atmosphere, as well as the comfort of our reclining seats," she said.

Welman said guests also enjoy extras such as valet parking and the elimination of standing in line for tickets. At his company's CineBistro in Atlanta, the next show is announced over a P.A. system much like the call to return to seats at the end of intermission at an opera.

"As an industry, we're upping our game, and it's about time," he said.

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