An industry in recline: Movie theaters step up comfort, amenities for enhanced experience

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/3/20

Traditional moviegoing is struggling, and it’s not hard to see why. Cheap Netflix subscriptions. High (and higher) definition TVs. The ability to stream endless hours of entertainment with the push …

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An industry in recline: Movie theaters step up comfort, amenities for enhanced experience

Posted

Traditional moviegoing is struggling, and it’s not hard to see why. Cheap Netflix subscriptions. High (and higher) definition TVs. The ability to stream endless hours of entertainment with the push of a smartphone button.

It’s that seemingly endless entertainment bounty that makes the decline of the simpleton cinema inevitable, right? Perhaps, but don’t tell that to the executives at the nation’s two largest movie theater chains, Regal Cinemas and AMC Theaters. They’ve both spent millions on lavish renovations and improvements to their theaters across the Denver area and show no signs of stopping.

From Westminster to Highlands Ranch and Arvada to Lone Tree, Denver-area audiences now sip craft beers and nosh on gourmet treats like flatbread pizzas and mac and cheese bites while watching crystal-clear movies from recliner seats that they reserved hours and even days ahead of time.

It’s all part of a new focus on the guest that AMC public relations director Ryan Noonan says has swept both AMC and the theater industry as a whole in the last few years. That’s been especially true in the Denver area, which Noonan said has seen among the most renovations and investment among AMC markets.

“What we saw is that guests really wanted this elevated moviegoing experience and they were no longer satisfied with just showing up and sitting in a seat and rubbing elbows with the person next to them,” Noonan said “They wanted to come sit in recliners, they wanted to enjoy better food, they wanted to have a beer as they watched a movie and they wanted to see it on a really big screen with the latest in projection technology. And as we’ve continued to provide that, we’ve seen more and more success and great guest feedback.”

Improvements can be costly

Although each of those improvements represents a major investment on the part of theater operators, few match the costs of adding reclining seats, which not only require individual auditoriums to be closed during installation but also typically reduce their capacity by 50% to 60% once installed.

But while such a change would seem to represent a self-inflicted threat to theater bottom lines, Noonan said AMC has found it to be a net positive because theaters are now finding people are returning to theaters more often even if it means there are not as many seats available to sell on the most popular moviegoing weekends.

The unique attraction that such seats offer became evident when the seats were first installed in an entire AMC theater in Seattle, Noonan said, and strong consumer enthusiasm for them has also been evident in the Denver area.

“Almost immediately what we saw (in that first theater in Seattle) were guests coming up to the box office and saying ‘I’d like to sit in a recliner to watch a movie’ and not ‘I’d like to go see this specific movie, what auditorium is it in?’” said Noonan.

The Alamo Drafthouse Effect

But while these kind of amenity-laden moviegoing experiences have become increasingly standard in Denver and other markets throughout the country, they were anything but when a Texan named Tim League opened a theater called Alamo Drafthouse that combined in-seat food and drink service with an old-school Hollywood vibe in Austin, Texas in 1997.

Alamo Drafthouse is credited by many in the industry with spearheading changing consumer tastes and the evolving nature of theaters in the Denver market has followed quickly from the opening of Alamo Drafthouse’s first area theater in Littleton in 2013 (additional locations have since opened in the Sloan’s Lake area and Westminster).

Regal Cinemas, the nation’s second biggest theater chain and the operator of 13 theaters in Colorado, seemed to be following the Alamo model when it opened a Regal Cinebarre, its brand of dine-in theater, in Greenwood Village last year. The Cinebarre took over its space from Greenwood Plaza Stadium 12, an aging theater that had closed in 2018.

“This state-of-the-art theater is a unique destination that provides moviegoers with an enhanced entertainment experience as they watch movies and eat a great meal,” Heather Peters, the public relations director for Regal Cinemas, wrote in an email. “The theater features a complete restaurant menu, traditional movie treats, plus a full bar with handcrafted cocktails and satellite television.”

Even some of Denver’s most classic and longstanding cinema destinations are taking note of the changing landscape and responding accordingly. When damage from a burst pipe forced the historic Esquire Theater in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood to close in late 2018, many assumed it would never reopen.

But when it did so last summer, the theater’s guests were greeted with the addition of new theater seats, carpeting and flooring as well as a new box office and concession stand. The improvements continued this winter with the addition of alcoholic beverages and an expanded concession menu.

“People increasingly expect to be able to grab a beer when they go out, and if we can have that for them it obviously keeps us in contention as far as a night out,” said the theater’s manager, Troy Lasley, who said alcohol has been popular at the theater.

Different angle on competition

But will such changes allow theaters like the Esquire to stave off the challenge posed by Netflix, DisneyPlus and other in-home entertainment options? Patrick Corcoran, the vice president of the National Association of Theater Operators, says that’s not actually the right question. That’s because Corcoran and other industry insiders feel that movie theaters are not actually competing with streaming services.

“Our competition is primarily for people who want to get out of the house,” said Corcoran. “In terms of the home, the disruption has primarily been in the home whether it’s been with VCR or DVD or now streaming services.”

And that away-from-home experience market is one in which Noonan said the theater industry continues to hold its own. For evidence of that success, he points to data that shows the film industry continues to sell around twice as many tickets as the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB professional sports leagues combined.

“I can’t think of a movie that’s been on a streaming service that’s ever got the amount of attention that ‘Avengers: Endgame’ got this year and that’s because movie theaters and movies up on the big screen are the cultural touchpoint for people that they gravitate towards,” Noonan said.

“And so while there will always be challenges, I think AMC and really the industry in general have done a really good job of pivoting to an elevated experience and I think guests have really responded.”

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