Cinebabies go gaga

Exhibs pamper moms and the diaper demo

NEW YORK — The movie biz, always looking to boost revenues, is targeting a new demographic.

It is comprised of the hip and the very young. They travel in packs. They eat a lot. And they like to talk back to the screen.

They are babies. Along with their moms, they are propelling growth in programs like Reel Moms, held weekly at Loews Cineplex theaters nationwide. The program’s grassroots origins and large number of breastfeeding audience members give new definition to the term “word of mouth.”

Reel Moms is aimed at moms and kids less than a year old, though Loews policy is tolerant — on one occasion a dad with two kids who appeared to be school-skipping age sneaked in as “The Last Samurai” began. (Childless patrons are barred from the Reel Moms auditorium and kids over three are charged admission.)

Because pics are aimed at parents, infants sometimes see R-rated films that are a long way from “Finding Nemo.”

In L.A., Reel Moms presented “The Magdalene Sisters,” a drama about Catholic women in Ireland being abused and put into servitude, their babies and young siblings ripped away from them. Another title that raised eyebrows was “Beyond Borders,” which pivots on the plight of starving refugee children.

When it comes to racy content, tots seemed impervious and mothers unconcerned, though management sometimes turns down the volume a few minutes into the show.

While the wail of babies, the din of parents’ whispers and overhead lights that never dim suggest a nightmare moviegoing experience for most people, for new parents these allowances mean two hours of relief. Few are able to focus on the movie, but it is a welcome change of scene.

Especially on Gotham’s Upper East Side, a neighborhood teeming with stay-at-home moms, competition for the diapered demo is starting to stir.

When Crown Theaters countered with a program similar to Reel Moms at its New York Twin at Second and 67th, Loews kicked their Upper East operation into high gear, expanding Reel Moms to its Orpheum Theater at Third Avenue and 87th Street.

It is too early to tell which venue will draw more strollers. But Loews says it has tapped into an underserved market with Reel Moms, which started in Manhattan in late 2002 and now is in 28 U.S. markets.

Loews marketing veep John McCauley and wife Hope Bader McCauley, an ad exec at NBC, conceived the idea for Reel Moms one afternoon when they realized their favorite pre-parent activity had come to a halt.

“We had no options after we had our first child,” says Bader McCauley. “We were new parents and very nervous not only about leaving our child but taking her anywhere.”

McCauley felt the program could accomplish dual objectives. It would boost traffic to the loud, nonresidential neighborhood where Loews’ new 34th Street Theater was struggling. It also would provide an environment where moms could feel comfortable breastfeeding, changing and tending to their babies, while also enjoying the camaraderie of fellow moms.

Loews execs were skeptical, but they agreed to test the program in Manhattan. Within a year, it had expanded nationwide. Tickets initially were discounted to $5 for the adults but now are full price.

Each week Reel Moms screens a firstrun pic, preceded by activities like Gymboree, puppet shows and even baby massages. The pre-show is organized by urbanbaby.com, a Website for citydwelling new moms. Companies like Fresh Direct and Child magazine set up shop and give out samples.

“‘I didn’t remember how much I missed movies as one of my prime sources of relaxation,” says thesp Marin Hinkle, a cast member of CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men” who has attended three Reel Moms screenings in L.A.

“The isolation of being a mom really leads you to panic that what your kid is going through is very singular, and you look at all these moms and you see the normalcy factor,” she adds. “The funny thing about it is that you are not necessarily taking in the movie, but enjoying watching how other people are managing the situation.”

At a recent Tuesday screening, one dad on paternity leave claimed he counted the outing successful if he made it though the first half-hour of the film without his son pitching a fit.

Other parents, eyes glued to the screen, seemed to have no trouble tuning out their little bundles of joy who were nestled in cradles at their feet.

The program does best in Gotham, where both Tuesdays and newly added Saturday screenings currently draw an average of 200 parents, about 15% of who are men, Loews says. At a November screening of “Love Actually,” attendance hit 450.

Other theaters around the country are drawing roughly 100 moms on an average week. And at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, theaters welcome any kind of steady traffic.

Studios have taken note of the tastemaking potential of the mom demographic. They have begun to book films specifically for Reel Moms; IFC and Fox arranged free advance screenings.

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