Cinema Paradise

Cinema Paradise
Illustration/Gary Hovland
A new type of high-end theater experience turns movie nights into luxurious evenings out

You're escorted to your reserved seat: a motor-driven, cushy leather chair with a perch that is ready to support your weary legs. At the push of a button, the seat reclines far back, becoming more like a bed, as your attendant offers you a blanket before the movie begins. Then the food and drink start to arrive. You start with a Caesar salad, move onto a lobster and finish with a Tuxedo cream cheesecake. You pair this tasty feast with a classic cocktail, a glass of wine or a single-malt Scotch on the rocks.

You'd think you were in the first-class section of a jetliner, except that the film you're watching is a first-run feature and you're not viewing it on a tiny LCD screen mounted on the seat in front of you—not by a long shot. Your nearest neighbor is several feet away and the screen before you towers dozens of feet high. This is the new face of movie playhouses: luxury, dine-in theaters like those of the worldwide exhibitor Cinépolis (just described) that take movie night to the concierge level. The accommodations are ultra luxurious, the highline food and beverage make the typical movie offering of chewy popcorn and a flat Coke seem like army rations and the level of service is incomparable to the candy-counter arrangements one must endure in the typical movie venue.

The age-old dinner-and-a-movie concept has become a one-stop proposition. At these high-end theaters, you drive your date to the movie, park once, and food, drink and entertainment are all packaged into one quite comfortable venue. What's more, waiting in line is minimized. You reserve seating in advance, ensuring that you and your date won't be separated, and eliminating the need to line up early in hopes of finding a good seat at a popular show. Once at your perch, there is no need to ever get up until the shows ends (warning: you may not want to even then).

If you arrive early you can place an order for a full meal and enjoy a cocktail at your seat before the show begins. A tray table holds everything within easy reach so you can lie back and relax. If you feel like having your drink freshened or ordering a snack during the movie (yes, you can order popcorn, but we suggest something more genteel, such as a cheese plate, fire-grilled quesadillas or hummus and pita chips), press the call button and your server appears to fulfill your wishes. Discreet lighting at your seat makes it convenient to check the menu for anything you might have missed. There's no need to get up and no standing in line at a snack counter. And if anyone else gets up, you won't be disrupted. With only 50 to 70 seats in a theater, plenty of space is allotted for guests to walk in and out without other patrons having to stand up and block the views of those behind them.

The dine-in experience was pioneered in the United States a handful of years ago with independent theaters looking for ways to distinguish themselves. Now, it's on the rise with large chains getting into the act, and the level of luxury hitting new heights.

Leo Kulp, a Wall Street analyst for RBC Capital who specializes in the movie theater industry, expects such playhouses to increase by 25 to 35 percent in the next few years. The three biggest chains—Cinemark, AMC and Regal, which account for about half of the $11 billion that the industry takes in annually—have announced plans to increase enhanced seating to between 25 and 40 percent of their screens. The next phase, Kulp predicts, will take it to another level. The phenomenon, which is grouped around wealthier markets, is unlikely to reach the same proportions as traditional theaters, Kulp adds. So far, it has been most prevalent in the suburbs, where driving to the movies is almost always part of the proposition and theaters are less likely to be conveniently located near fine dining. Such states as California, Florida, Georgia and Texas have been leaders.

From a historical perspective, the trend is logical. Beginning with the advent of television and continuing through such options as cable, VHS, DVD and streaming, which bring movies home without the annoyance of advertising, theaters have been fighting a battle to put customers in seats. One of the first come-ons was the air-conditioned theater, but that convenience is now so pervasive at home that it has long ceased to be a selling point. Another approach has been souped-up viewing options, such as the many iterations of 3-D (which is also now available at home in video form) and giant IMAX screens. Next on the horizon is the 4DX experience, a technology that enhances the presentation with effects like seat motion, wind, rain, fog, lights, and scents, something that has been used in amusement parks but has yet to make serious appearances in mainstream movie theaters. With the luxury theater experience movie screeners may have struck upon the next best thing—and with an important added benefit: the possible income from concessions has risen precipitously.

Even while local theaters bare the scorn of moviegoers outraged by ever-escalating admission prices, they've seen very little profit from the resulting inflation. The average price of a movie ticket in the United States is $8.61 today, up almost 500 percent from $1.76 40 years ago. Most of the cost of a movie ticket goes to pay for the rental of the movie, which means it goes back to the studio. Theaters depend on selling snacks at inflated prices for their livelihood. That's why a bucket of popcorn, which you could make at home for pennies, costs so much when you go to the movies. Full meals and bar service are the ultimate concession booster.

Higher prices at the box office may be what is causing the erosion in movie going that has seen the average theater visit per capita in the U.S. drop from five times a year in 2012 to four times in 2014. However, sales from concessions have outstripped the losses in attendance. Kulp says that circuit theaters have been cautious about adding luxury because their sparse seating drives up ticket prices (sometimes close to $30), but he adds, "At the end of the day, they are facing the challenge of trying to get people into the theater who will buy that high-margin popcorn." Popcorn that is locally grown or seasoned with pimentón (Spanish paprika) may be perfect in that scenario.

For Cinépolis USA, which is part of the Mexico-based concern that owns theaters throughout Latin America and India as well as in the United States, the luxury concept actually began offshore in 1999. "When they came to the U.S. in 2011, they decided to do the hyper-hyper version of what they had started," says April Mendoza, food & beverage and marketing director for Cinépolis, which has its own private label wines. "It just started by guests saying they want this elevated experience." The company plans to build five new locations this year, expanding to markets like Connecticut, Ohio and Virginia.

Cinépolis is by no means the only purveyor, nor are luxury theaters a cookie-cutter experience. Large chains like AMC and Regal have luxe theaters where the table-side fare is more basic, but you enjoy the calming atmosphere of a 21-and-over age limit. Food service varies from place to place. The iPic theater in Boca Raton, Florida, for instance, gets its meals catered by the nearby Tanzy restaurant and the renowned mixologist Adam Seger has designed its cocktail menu. Go to an independent food-and-a-flick theater and expect to find local specialties like the Coho salmon empanadas served at the Starlight Room in Port Townsend, Washington, or the muffaletta at the Theaters at Canal Place in New Orleans. The Alamo Drafthouse, in Austin, Texas, sometimes pairs its food offerings with the theme of the movie, like the Italian Wedding Soup it served at a revival of Moonstruck.

The possible layouts of a dinner-and-movie theater also vary—especially with independent theaters. You'll find banquettes and couches among the seating at Enzian, in Maitland, Florida. The Commodore, in Portsmouth, Virginia, has classic restaurant tables and chairs. If you get bored with the movie at Brewvies Cinema Pub in Salt Lake City, you can wander out to the lobby and shoot some pool.

With such a diversity of experience there are few drawbacks to this dinner-and-a-date scenario, except that you may fall asleep amidst all that comfort...and it's hard to make out with a tray table between you.