Exhibs fish for auds with lures

Cinemas fight aud attrition with beer, premium seating and sing-alongs

When National Amusements’ Shari Redstone last week unveiled pumped-up plans to add everything from video arcades to martini bars, it was only the latest twist in the ever-changing effort to lure moviegoers to the multiplex.

Just as studios turn to the specialty sector as a bright spot in production, the major exhibition chains are borrowing a page from their specialty counterparts, looking to offer the kind of upscale services that indie chains either invented or have experimented with for years.

For example, Landmark Theaters publishes its own film magazine and operates bars in eight markets. IFC has launched an ambitious program of midnight movies.

And since the 1980s, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, has offered beer and a wide menu during screenings of such fare as “The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio” and a sing-along “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” in addition to new releases of such pics as “The Notorious Bettie Page.”

With filmgoing declining, major chains have noticed such enticements. So the local multiplex could soon be the site of midnight screenings, cocktail lounges — even obscure titles.

This could be good news. But it also means exhibitors will be forced once again to make new capital expenditures, after many filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s when aggressive expansions went bust.

In her March 28 address in Gotham, Redstone signaled that National Amusements also plans such things as offering pricey premium seating and screening live sporting events, in addition to offering a more diversified selection of pictures. The idea is to lure back older audiences with upscale services and innovative venues. She talked of turning theaters into “community entertainment destinations.”

“We have to get more creative about satisfying (a consumer’s) appetite,” she said at the Bank of America confab in Gotham. “We need to focus on bringing the ‘wow factor’ back to the theater, both in the experience and in the environment.”

But the big guys aren’t the only ones looking to change. Specialty cinemas are also gearing up to expand. Sundance Cinemas recently bought San Francisco’s Kabuki 8 from AMC and announced a Madison, Wis., location, with dining and retail businesses planned onsite. Pics would screen with background shorts on films and filmmakers produced by the Sundance Institute.

“We have always seen specialty film as a growing market, though the film supply has gone through peaks and valleys,” says Sundance Cinemas’ Bert Manzari. “We’re going to have every possible amenity you can imagine.”

But can such innovations work for the major chains on a large scale?

Mainstream multiplexes already have been enticing moviegoers, essentially working with shopping center developers to keep audiences wining and dining (or shopping) near the premises. Yet even that didn’t stop major chains from falling into bankruptcy in the late 1990s, nor did it seem stem the drop in filmgoing last year.

Some major chains have said they want a more diverse selection of films at the multiplex. Most have indie film buyers to scope out the market, and the recent ShoWest was notable for all the attention paid to indie fare like Picturehouse’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and Lionsgate’s “Akeelah and the Bee.”

But often specialty pics require patience for weeks on end as buzz builds — something that major exhibitors have little experience doing.

“By design, specialty films go out slowly and build an audience,” says Ted Mundorff, VP and head film buyer for Landmark Theaters. “Generally the pattern is for word of mouth and getting good reviews, as opposed to releases with huge TV campaigns to get people within the first 10 days.”

“Commercial chains won’t have the patience to nurture a ‘Capote,’ ” sniffs one indie veteran. “They won’t take the time to hold it over. So chains will try and book a lot of this stuff purely as (potential) crossover.”

Indie chains have learned to be much more selective in opening locations. Sundance Cinemas, which is backed by Oaktree Capital Management, originally had planned a venture with General Cinemas in 2001 to open theaters in Chicago, Boston, Texas, Florida and Canada plus elsewhere. The General Cinemas deal fizzled, and now “we’re being extremely choosy about picking our locations,” Manzari says.

It’s also somewhat of a crapshoot on what will work. Madstone Cinemas, which launched in 1999 with innovative plans for combining exhibition, production and distribution, closed its doors in eight markets last year.

Still, in major markets, there are ample examples where moviegoing amenities draw full-house auds.

Venues like L.A.s’ ArcLight have done well by offering such things as specialized film programs, a gift shop and a swank lounge, in addition to the lineup of mainstream and arthouse pics.

And for some specialty-oriented chains, extra amenities have become so common that when it was announced former distribution exec John Vanco would head IFC’s Gotham cinema, the IFC Center, the press release didn’t just mention that he’d be in charge of the film program, but its restaurant as well. (A Cablevision entity, IFC has only its Gotham location, but has its eyes on expansion.)

“We’re going back to what moviegoing was like in its heyday,” says Vanco, whose IFC Center plays a short before each film and has a weekend classics program. “We have gone so far away from that. In the 1940s, it was a whole experience: There was a newsreel, a B-feature and a main feature.”

The New York Times salivated over the IFC Center’s “panko-coated cod and potato cakes” and “minty lamb sandwich on chewy ciabatta” as much as any movie. Once again, it seems, everything old is new again.

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