Luxury exhib chain plans $35 film tickets

A recession may be looming, but a group of investors thinks Americans are ready to pony up $35 for a movie ticket.

Village Roadshow Ltd., Act III, Lambert Entertainment and the Retirement Systems of Alabama pension fund have partnered to bring the luxury cinema circuit Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas to the U.S.

The partners will spend $200 million to build 50 theaters nationwide over the next five years, with the first two venues set to open in South Barrington, a suburb of Chicago, and the Seattle suburb of Redmond in October. Others are planned for Fairview, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth, and Scottsdale, Ariz.

Each complex will sport theaters featuring 40 reclining armchair seats with footrests, digital projection and the capability to screen 2-D and 3-D movies, as well as a lounge and bar serving cocktails and appetizers, a concierge service and valet parking.

But the circuit will especially push its culinary offerings — made-to-order meals like sushi and other theater-friendly foods from on-site chefs (a service button at each seat calls a waiter). Moviegoers will have to pay extra for any food they order, however.

The Burbank-based company’s hoping to attract 10 million “upscale and affluent” consumers per year to its theaters that will be housed in high-end shopping centers and malls. Each complex will typically house eight screens.

“It’s a new way to go to the movies,” said Graham Burke, managing director and CEO of Village Roadshow Ltd. “It’s like what Mercedes is to a Toyota or like flying first class in an airplane.”

Village Roadshow founded the Gold Class Cinemas chain in Australia in 1997. It has since expanded to other countries, including Singapore and Greece.

Company execs said bringing the chain to the U.S. is a “natural extension” of the brand.

“The demand for luxury moviegoing in the U.S. is very strong, and by working with our partners, we are delivering on that demand in a way never before experienced by the American consumer,” said Kirk Senior, CEO of Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas.

In addition to its initial complexes in Illinois, Washington, Texas and Arizona, company also plans to build in California, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New York.

Gold Class Cinemas won’t be the first luxury theater circuit in the U.S. Regal Entertainment, Cinemark, National Amusements and Sundance Cinemas offer similar services, including high-end food and concierges, at much cheaper prices of around $12-$18 per ticket.

Idea is that plushing up the current moviegoing experience will encourage auds that typically stay home to watch movies via their pricey home theaters to venture out again. But it’s also a way for exhibs to make more money: Concession sales are kept by theater chains, while a little more than half of each ticket sold is split with the studios. Selling sushi and a glass of wine will command higher prices than popcorn and soda.

There are an estimated 300 high-end multiplexes operating in the U.S.

If the recession is stressing out some businesses, exhibitors aren’t sweating just yet. Entertainment has long been shown to be recession-proof. And that’s exactly the attitude Village Roadshow is taking.

“This is a top-end experience,” Burke said. “People want to get away from their blues. I don’t think the recession will affect it one iota.”

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