Theaters take dinner and a movie concept upscale
Chicago — Forget the concept of dinner and a movie. Cineplexes these days hope you’re planning an evening of cuisine at the movie.
With theater attendance essentially flat as consumers binge-watch programs from their sofas, movie theaters are kicking it up a notch, with new food offerings, plush seating and state-of-the-art sound and viewing systems.
At some complexes, the menu has moved beyond the fry-fest of chicken nuggets, french fries and popcorn to include fancy brussels sprouts, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, mussels and other made-to-order fare.
Often, there’s a server to deliver your food to a private table at your seat. There are also handcrafted cocktails and craft beers. Still want popcorn? Sure, and you’re eating it on heated, reclining seats.
Bringing luxury to the movie-going experience is crucial for an industry that is fighting back against the likes Netflix and Amazon, and movie watchers who’d rather wait to watch a movie on iTunes than head out to a classic movie theater. Box office receipts remain lackluster — last year, films brought in $11.3 billion, up a mere 2 percent from 2015, according to Box Office Mojo.
The battle for a piece of the theater-going audience has turned into a game of one-upsmanship since the same movies are playing in multiple venues.
“There are a variety of ways you can consume content,” said James Goss, managing partner of Barrington Research, which tracks media and technology companies, including movie theaters. “They’ve had to combat that ... so they’ve improved the quality of seating and food.”
Noshing while you’re watching is a key to a theater’s viability, because the food and drink categories can generate an 85 percent profit margin, according to Goss. Ticket prices at decked-out megaplexes can hit $17 for an evening show, but movie studios often take about half of those proceeds.
Some theaters have lowered ticket prices knowing they’ll get moviegoers in the door to spend more money on upscale food and drinks. “By buying concessions ... you’re paying for the environment,” he said.
Ambiance is exactly what Ben Munro and his partners, Tom Fencl and Tim Ryll, were aiming for when they reopened the nearly 100-year-old Davis Theater late last year in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.
In addition to refreshing the Davis, the trio opened a restaurant next door.
The plan was for the two businesses to have an “umbilical” relationship, Munro said, so the theater and the restaurant “get to take advantage of each other (and it) happens naturally.”
Theater owners say their main goal is to reel in moviegoers who are excited to meld dinner and movie into one, less time-consuming experience.
“Movies and dining are the most common forms of entertainment,” said Hamid Hashemi, president and CEO of iPic Entertainment, which has 16 theaters and 121 screens nationwide. “We will give part of that time back to you. If you’re getting a baby sitter, and can combine the two under four hours, it will become a more frequent experience.”
Milwaukee-based Marcus Theaters is launching a new, built-from-the-ground-up “BistroPlex” in suburban Milwaukee. Patrons will lounge in the theaters’ “DreamLounger” heated, reclining seats, watch movies on oversized screens, and order freshly made food delivered directly to an individual side table attached to their seat. Marcus wants guests to remember the food as much as the movie.
“We call it the restaurant that serves a movie,” said Rob Novak, vice president of food, beverage and concessions at Marcus. Plans are to roll out the concept in other cities, he added.