Theater chains roll out 'value menus'

It’s a good news, bad news scenario: Theater admissions are way up during the biggest economic downturn in decades, but while filmgoers are enthusiastically buying movie tickets, they’re saving money by buying fewer snacks and drinks.

In response, theater chains are rolling out “value menus” to combat reluctance at the concession counter. None is doing it as drastically as Carmike Cinemas, which in March introduced Stimulus Tuesdays to its 250 locations, with refreshments at the rock bottom price of $1 each.

“Popcorn and drink prices like these have not been seen since the 1970s,” boasted Carmike director of marketing Dale Hurst when the program was announced.

Muvico prexy Mike Whalen admits the concession business is beginning to show some weakness in total sales per person. But, “the good news is, people want to go to the movies more.” So Muvico, which offers a larger menu than many exhibs, is adding combos and specials with meal-type items such as popcorn shrimp, chicken tenders and pizza “to create more value for the consumer,” says Whalen.

Despite the economy, Muvico continues to roll out ambitious full-service restaurants, such as the Bogart’s Bar and Grill it recently opened at a 14-screen multiplex in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Whalen points out that nearly half of Bogart’s patrons come just for food and drinks, like mango martinis and bacon-wrapped dates, and aren’t theatergoers.

“We believe in ancillary businesses,” says Whalen.

Andy DiOrio, AMC’s manager of corporate communications, agrees that value is the key concept this year. Theatergoers are “more value-conscious than ever,” DiOrio says. AMC is offering popcorn, sodas, Icees, bottled water and candy for $3 each or three items for $7.50, with the combo prices available at all times. The circuit also offers discounts on rotating items and loyalty-program discounts.

The restaurant sector as a whole is facing challenges during the downturn, but AMC is also testing various dining concepts. At Kansas City’s AMC Studio 30, the Fork & Screen concept includes both in-theater dining and the MacGuffins bar and lounge area. DiOrio says that so far, patrons seem to appreciate “having the concession stand come to them.”

Recession or not, another area of change in the concession business is the move to items perceived as healthier. Soda sales have been trending down overall in the U.S. for the past several years. Whalen says Muvico has responded by switching from Coke products to PepsiCo, which offers bottled drinks such as Gatorade and Frappucinos as well as traditional fountain sodas.

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