Movie theaters push fancy foods to attract patrons
CHICAGO — Forget the concept of dinner and a movie. Cineplexes these days hope you’re planning an evening of cuisine at the movie.
With theater attendance essentially flat as consumers binge-watch programs from their sofas, movie theaters are kicking it up a notch, with new food offerings, plush seating and state-of-the-art sound and viewing systems.
At some complexes, the menu has moved beyond the fry-fest of chicken nuggets, french fries and popcorn to include fancy Brussels sprouts, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, mussels and other made-to-order fare.
Often, there’s a server to deliver your food to a private table at your seat. There are also handcrafted cocktails and craft beers. Still want popcorn? Sure, and you’re eating it on heated, reclining seats.
Bringing luxury to the moviegoing experience is crucial for an industry that is fighting back against the likes of Netflix and Amazon as well as movie watchers who’d rather wait to watch a movie on iTunes than head out to a classic movie theater. Box office receipts remain lackluster — last year, films brought in $11.3 billion, up a mere 2 percent from 2015, according to Box Office Mojo.
Standing out: The battle for a piece of the theatergoing audience has turned into a game of one-upsmanship since the same movies are playing in multiple venues.
“There are a variety of ways you can consume content,” said James Goss, managing partner of Barrington Research, which tracks media and technology companies, including movie theaters. “They’ve had to combat that … so they’ve improved the quality of seating and food.”
Noshing while you’re watching is key to a theater’s viability because the food and drink categories can generate an 85 percent profit margin, according to Goss. Ticket prices at decked-out megaplexes can run as high as $17 for an evening show, but movie studios often take about half of those proceeds.
Some theaters have lowered ticket prices knowing they’ll get moviegoers in the door to spend more money on upscale food and drinks. “By buying concessions … you’re paying for the environment,” he said.
Modern theater: Ambiance is exactly what Ben Munro and his partners, Tom Fencl and Tim Ryll, were aiming for when they reopened the nearly 100-year-old Davis Theater late last year in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.
In addition to refreshing the Davis, the trio opened a restaurant, Carbon Arc Bar & Board, next door.
The plan was for the two businesses to have an “umbilical” relationship, according to Munro. That way, he said, the theater and the restaurant “get to take advantage of each other (and it) happens naturally.”
Carbon Arc’s menu includes upscale offerings such as pate, steak frites, scallops and cocktails that can be consumed in the restaurant or carried into the theater, which underwent a $5 million restoration.
“Our idea was to take it to another level of social sharing and experience than may be offered in typical movie theaters,” Munro said. But unlike some newer theaters, there are no servers delivering food or reclining seats, because there just wasn’t enough room.
“You’re coming to spend time with neighbors you know or don’t know,” he said. “It feels a little more charming than the big guys.”
So far, the strategy has worked. The Davis and Carbon Arc have been turning a profit since March and not just because of the restaurant, Munro said.
However, the standalone restaurant can make up revenues for slow movie periods.
One experience: Theater owners say their main goal is to reel in moviegoers who are excited to meld dinner and movie into one, less time-consuming experience.
“Movies and dining are the most common forms of entertainment,” said Hamid Hashemi, president and CEO of iPic Entertainment, which has 16 theaters and 121 screens around the country. “We will give part of that time back to you. If you’re getting a baby sitter, and can combine the two under four hours, it will become a more frequent experience.”
Over the July Fourth holiday weekend, Milwaukee-based Marcus Theaters launched its new, built-from-the-ground-up “BistroPlex” in suburban Milwaukee. Patrons will lounge in the theaters’ “DreamLounger” heated, reclining seats, watch movies on oversized screens, and order freshly made food delivered directly to an individual side table attached to their seat. Marcus wants guests to remember the food as much as the movie.
“We call it the restaurant that serves a movie,” said Rob Novak, vice president of food, beverage and concessions at Marcus. After testing the concept in the Milwaukee suburbs, Marcus plans to roll it out to other cities in the near future, he added.
Like flying: Boca Raton, Fla.-based iPic Entertainment has created an experience akin to first class on an international flight: full-leg reclining leather seats, pillows, blankets and call buttons to summon servers, who are called “ninjas” since they are meant to not disturb movie-watching patrons as they deliver food and drinks.
Consumers with a membership to the theater can have their blankets customized with their names. Last year, iPic launched its patented “seating pods,” in Houston — cozy, private two-seat recliners. The theaters also offer gaming and fewer seats for a more personal experience.
IPic is planning to bring its brand of fancy moviegoing to Chicago in “hot neighborhoods,” in the next 24 months, according to Hashemi, who declined to provide more details.
IPic also wants to embrace the home sofa-based movie watching contingent by partnering with Netflix to show original movies produced by the network. And in addition to previews, the theater presents originally produced 20-minute cooking shows with celebrity chefs, such as Mindy Segal, who have created dishes served in the theater.
Membership: The company has 1.6 million members across its 16 locations, according to Hashemi. Memberships vary by location, but a basic paid membership at one Chicago-area location starts at $29. Top tier “platinum” members pay no fee but purchase 104 tickets annually, according to the iPic website.
Another big draw is alcohol, movie owners say. Since 2009, the world’s largest movie chain, AMC Theaters, went from 10 locations serving alcohol to 250 locations today, according to spokesman Ryan Noonan. It too, offers “Dine-In” theaters with trendy menus, to-your-seat service and recliners, which Noonan says is the biggest draw in upscale movie-watching.
At AMC, the theaters with recliners have seen a 40 to 60 percent rise in attendance, according to the company. Meanwhile, food and beverage sales increased to represent 31 percent of company revenues last year, from 27 percent in 2011.
“The recliner is something that touches all moviegoers everywhere,” said Noonan. AMC is testing new heated recliners in certain markets. “Everyone seems to really love coming to the movie theater and relaxing. Recliners is usually what people are thinking about when they go to the movies.”
What’s the next frontier? Who knows, but high-end perks at movie theaters aren’t going to save the business, according to Barrington Research’s Goss. The experience of watching a film on a large screen in a dark room will. “People haven’t given up on movie theaters,” he said.