Gerry Weber is happy to see a movie at St. Anthony Main Theatre when he’s out with friends because it’s close to his home in Dinkytown. “I like the atmosphere and I don’t have to pay to park,” he said.
But when he wants to impress a date, Weber heads to a theater with reclining heated seats, craft beer, mixologist-inspired cocktails, chef-inspired menus and popcorn bars.
Movie theaters and Hollywood studios are having a near-record year, rebounding from a difficult 2017 amid blockbusters such as “Incredibles 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” But a makeover of the nation’s theaters is also having an effect.
In the Twin Cities, about 40 percent of the movie theaters have been remodeled with recliner seats that, while allowing fewer people in an auditorium, provide a more comfortable experience — and one that generates more revenue. From the seats to the food and drinks, theater owners are splurging to add the amenities to remain appealing to people who can now see movies virtually anywhere, even on their phones.
Craig Carlson said he and his wife, Yelena, will drive out of their way from their Brooklyn Center home to find a theater with the newest amenities, usually Emagine Willow Creek. “It’s clean, the reclining leather seats are huge, the atmosphere is relaxed, and it’s easy to park,” Carlson said. “We spend more time here because we usually stop at the theater’s bar first for something to eat and drink.”
AMC Theaters in Coon Rapids was the first Twin Cities theater to launch a rebirth five years when it added recliners. Marcus Oakdale Cinema soon followed. In May, CMX Cinemas at Mall of America debuted with not only recliners and a bar but also a new-to-the-industry food hall with candy, pizza, burgers, charcuterie platters, salads and three kinds of popcorn.
Next on the scene is an outpost of the Alamo Drafthouse chain, scheduled to open July 16 in Woodbury. Besides recliners, it brings state-of-the-art laser projectors, Dolby Atmos sound, 32 local beers on tap and strict policies of no talking or texting during the movie. Also banned? Late seating and pre-movie advertising.
“This is truly a movie theater for movie lovers,” said Jordan Michael, creative director for the Austin, Texas-based company. “We give you one firm, earnest warning about no talking or texting during the movie and if it happens again we politely ask you to leave.”
Theater owners are hoping that putting movie lovers in the lap of luxury will keep them from going the way of the video store or the record shop.
Jon Goldstein, co-owner of Emagine Entertainment based in Michigan, purchased eight Muller Family Theatres in 2016, including locations in Plymouth, Lakeville and White Bear Lake. He’s remodeled six of the sites, with theaters in Monticello and East Bethel expected to be refurbished by year-end. “People go to the movies to treat themselves and now we give them more ways to do that,” he said.
Getting consumers to stay longer in any retail or entertainment venue tends to lead to more spending. At Marcus Oakdale Cinemas, many customers arrive 30 minutes early to sit in the lounge and take a cocktail to the auditorium. Some will come out of the movie and head back to the bar to talk it over with friends.
“Maybe they watch part of a sporting event on the TVs or they talk about the movie they just experienced,” said Rolando Rodriguez, chief executive of Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres. “Either way, it’s a network of family or friends that are spending three or three and a half hours here when they used to spend two.”
Adding alcohol and more food choices also plays with a hallowed institution: date night.
“It used to be that a couple would go two places on date night, one for dinner and then to a movie,” said John Ziegler, general manager at CMX Cinemas in Mall of America. “Now we can accommodate them for both.”
One other relatively new innovation is also attracting people to theaters: subscription pricing, started by a firm called MoviePass and being followed up on by theater chains themselves.
MoviePass is a $10-a-month subscription that lets its members see a movie a day at nearly any first-run theater. The business model has skeptics, including customers who think the deal is too good and the company won’t last. Just last week, the company announced new “surge” pricing that will add $2 to $6 for some movies. But MoviePass’ 3 million members are seeing more movies than the average customer.
Carl Stone, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, joined MoviePass late last year and is now averaging three movies a month using it. “I’ve seen so many movies that I’d never see otherwise, even terrible ones,” Stone said. “I used to wait for the second-run theaters, but now I can see blockbusters at AMC in their second week.”
AMC, Cinemark, Sinemia and Atom have noted its success and started their own subscription offerings. It’s a way for theater owners to slow rising admission prices as the average ticket price nears $10. Being price sensitive since the recession, theaters nationwide have brought back $5 Tuesdays and initiated their own loyalty programs with lower prices on admission, food and beverages.
The movie industry’s reboot appears to be working, with box office receipts hitting a record $6 billion in the first half of the year. Frank Stryjewski, chief operating officer for CMX Cinemas, is optimistic for the rest of the year because of films, such as “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a new “Halloween” with Jamie Lee Curtis and “Equalizer 2” with Denzel Washington coming out.
“We’re on pace for a record-breaking year,” Stryjewski said.
Even with box office receipts piling up like Marvel movie villains, some independent theater owners remain worried about keeping up. Loren Williams, who co-owns theaters in Woodbury, St. Michael and the second-run Riverview Theatre in Minneapolis, said there is unprecedented pressure to keep up with all the changes.
“When stadium seating started in the late ’90s, it came at a slower pace,” he said. “Recliner seating by comparison has been a tsunami. There’s a flood of new projects and everything’s happening at once. I don’t know where it’s all going to end.”
At this year’s convention of theater owners called CinemaCon, the struggle to keep up was all the independent theater owners were talking about.
“They say they can’t keep upgrading their theaters without getting a good product,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations in Los Angeles. “Fortunately, 2018 has been very good to theaters so far.”