Way back in the olden days, 15-20 years ago, exhibitors and their cinema chains faced competition from a well-known enemy: TV and VCRs. Today, thanks to the digital revolution and the ever-increasing proliferation of handheld devices and giant TV screens, the viewing landscape has been totally transformed, and exhibitors are turning to ever-fancier bells and whistles to help lure audiences back to theaters.

At CinemaCon next week exhibs will be checking out innovations to lure patrons. These include not only fancy dinners and drinks but also plush seating and fancy screens and sound.

Cinemark, one of the largest theater chains in the U.S. (4,500 screens in 41 states) and the world (over 1,100 screens in 13 countries) has long championed improvements and upgrades. In the 1990s, it was at the forefront of the move to incorporate stadium-style seating, and over the past few years it’s expanded its NextGen concept (providing guests with “a cutting-edge entertainment experience”) and Cinemark XD, now the “No. 1, private label, premium large format in the world,” according to James Meredith, VP and head of marketing and communications, Cinemark USA.

“XD auditoriums offer complete entertainment environments featuring enormous wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor screens, plush seating and immersive 60-plus speaker digital surround sound systems with multiple sound format capabilities.”

Digital images are delivered by Doremi servers and Barco DLP digital projectors, “which offer the brightest light standards in the industry,” he adds. The XD auditoriums are designed to exhibit the newest movies every week, including 2D and RealD 3D films.

But it’s not just the large chains such as Cinemark, Regal (7,000-plus screens), AMC (5,000), Carmike (3,000) and Cineplex (1,700) that are tailoring the movie-going experience to their patrons’ needs. In a perhaps inevitable move to officially combine dinner and a movie, exhibitors are increasingly swapping out stale popcorn and soda for restaurant-style meals complete with wine. Silverspot Cinema, with 87 screens under development, plans to open an 11-screen theater with a restaurant and bar next month in Coconut Creek, Fla., offering audiences “a boutique destination theater” equipped with the latest sound and projection technology, reserved stadium seating, and extra-large hand-stitched leather seats, specially made for Silverspot.

Likewise, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain is the equivalent of a micro-brewery or artisanal bakery, serving up tasty treats — both literally and figuratively — for a discerning audience that craves a more hand-crafted approach. Headquartered in Austin, the company is headed by Tim League, founder and CEO, who describes his operation as, “a specialized chain that serves good food and cocktails, beer and wine, along with our films, and we feature a wide variety of content — from first-run movies and big blockbusters to small independent films, foreign releases and classic movies — and enforce a very strict ‘no-talking’ policy, which our patrons love.”

With 19 theaters nationwide, and five under construction, this approach is paying off. “This is a big year for us, and there’s definitely a big need for our particular type of cinema and operation,” he notes.

But he’s also well aware that exhibition remains problematic in the digital age. “Having great presentation as a brand is really important to me, so we standardized on the Sony 4K projectors in our theaters. It’s vital to have big sound, and a bright in-focus picture, so we’ve been looking at Sony’s new laser projectors and the Dolby Atmos system — possibly for our new locations.”

As for the latest in “augmented presentation” (think moving seats, and even scents and wind effects), League has also checked out D-Box motion systems, stating that, “it’s great for an action film like ‘Furious 7’ — it really works. But unless it’s that type of movie, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

In the U.K., the introduction of 4DX fits into the wider trend of exhibitors investing in superior exhibition technologies in a move to attract and retain audiences.

FourD motion seating is “a niche trend in cinema exhibition,” says Charlotte Jones, principal cinema analyst of IHS Technology, “but is becoming an increasingly important one, as cinemas look to expand on the range of premium upmarket experiences (alongside 3D, Imax, D-Box, Dolby Cinema and exhibitors’ own brand PLF screens) that help drive audiences into the coveted higher- priced seats.”

The format has a growing international presence, adding the U.K. through major exhibitor Cineworld to the 27 international territories it operates.

But for League and other exhibitors who’ll be checking out the latest innovations at CinemaCon, all the new bells and whistles don’t change the basic equation.

“We’re still in the business of offering people an option if they want to get out of the house,” says League, “and I see the real competition as dinner, comedy clubs and shows, not streaming devices and home entertainment systems.”

And despite all the technological advances now available to exhibitors, going into CinemaCon the big buzz word this year appears to be “plush-seating.” AMC has already converted most of its chain, and Regal is following suit, reducing seat count to accommodate the new large, over-stuffed recliners.

“A few of our theaters feature new Cinemark Luxury Lounger recliners, that sometimes feature tables for guests to enjoy their meals,” reports Meredith.

“People want the big picture and sound,” adds League, “but they also want the comforts of home.”

April 23-26
Caesars Palace, Las Vegas