Pasta with truffled asparagus is coming soon

Chains are gaining ground in bringing full-service food and drinks to theaters, as Landmark, Muvico, Sundance and Pacific Theater’s ArcLight expand further into the premium complex market. Regal and National Amusements also are going far beyond popcorn and Cokes in a few upscale theaters. And filmgoers are willing to pay considerably more for the premium experience — up to a healthy $18 per ticket.

Until recently, independent theaters were the innovators in bringing dinner-and-a-movie into the same location:

  • Vancouver, Wash.’s Cinetopia offers “transworld tapas” in an eight-screen multiplex complete with wine bar. It’s unclear how easy it is to eat a grilled artichoke or pasta with truffled asparagus while viewing a film in one of the 21-and-over Living Room theaters, but Vancouver/Portland, Ore., area residents don’t seem to mind paying $15 per ticket to find out.

  • In Indianapolis, patrons at the Greenbriar Cinema pay just $5 per ticket for mostly second-run fare as long as they purchase a food item, choosing from dishes like Gandalf’s garlic bread or Raiders of the Lost Artichoke Dip.

  • At Texas’ famous Alamo Drafthouse, moviegoers at seven locations can choose from the Constant Gardener salad, pitchers of microbrew beer and Big Fish tacos served on narrow tables in front of the movie seats.

Sundance Cinemas, which planned to get into the game 10 years ago, initially stumbled due to its partnership with General Cinema. But Sundance has regrouped, taking over the Kabuki in San Francisco and another complex in Madison, Wis., perfectly positioned for crunchy clientele who want their films arty and their salmon wild.

The New York Times recently reported there are now 300 restaurants in cinemas nationwide, ranging from suburban burger joints to sophisticated wine bars.

The success of Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas has spurred other exhibs to get into the upscale biz, while Florida-based Muvico is playing it both ways, with megaplexes divided into general (read: noisy kids) and premium adult areas.

When the ArcLight opened, observers were skeptical whether people would pay $14 for comfortable, reserved seating in auditoriums that have an adjacent cafe and gift shop, but auds have made the multiplex a high grosser since the 2002 opening. The ArcLight recently opened another multiplex in Sherman Oaks, an upper middle class Los Angeles suburb.

“The ArcLight was a large influence,” says Ted Mundorff, CEO of specialty film exhib Landmark. “We recognized the audience was hungry for an upscale experience, and the (L.A.) Westside did not offer that.” Landmark recently opened complexes in Denver and Baltimore, and like the Westside Landmark, they all have bars. “People are going to higher-priced theaters,” Mundorff observes. “There doesn’t seem to be a barrier.”

Mundorff adds Landmark tried to make the concessions unique and feature locally sourced products like La Brea Bakery hot dog buns at its West L.A. location. Vegan cookies, organic nut mix, fresh pizza each day from Pizza Rustica and Yogurtberry frozen desserts are some of the gourmet items served at the concession stand, while a sleek lounge serves wine, cocktails and snacks.

Florida-based Muvico, with 14 megaplexes, has modified the concept to fit both typical teen auds and upscale adult filmgoers.

“Where we differ is more of a segmentation strategy,” says Muvico prexy Michael Whalen Jr. “We’ve given the customer a choice of how he wants to see the same movie.” Whalen contends the small screens in some complexes’ exclusive auditoriums actually work against differentiating the moviegoing experience from viewing films at home. Muvico’s megaplexes offer large screens with a 21-and-up balcony level including dinner and drinks, and a family experience down below.

The Oaks, Muvico’s first California location, in Thousand Oaks, is set to open in December with curbside valet parking and a Bogart’s full-service restaurant.

AMC’s Premium Cinema and Grille, with 13 locations, charges a top-of-the-market $18 for a ticket, which includes popcorn, soda, coat check and reserved leather seats. Dinner and drinks can be served in a restaurant outside the theater or in the theater itself.

Quality projection, comfortable seats and the chance to eat dinner and drink during the movie are helping upscale complexes compete against home theaters, exhibs assert.

Although the food quality doesn’t always approach what’s available in outside restaurants, the convenience — and the booze — outweigh the sometimes-rubbery chicken.

“There’s a synergy between dining and movies,” Whalen says. “Having it under one roof makes sense to us. But it doesn’t work if the food isn’t good.”

Still, even with all these theater dining options, patrons may hesitate before ordering one of the specialties at Asheville, N.C.’s Cinebarre: the Soylent Green salad.

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