Welcome to the future of film: How Hong Kong cinemas are going high-tech and gastro-crazy
Cinema operators are offering movie-goers an enhanced viewing experience in state-of the-art venues, writes Bernice Chan
Cinema-going is no longer just about the movie. It is an experience - one that is special enough to lure people away from their homes to the big screen.
Local cinema operators are pulling out all the stops - as well as the rocking seats and the tiramisu jelly - to attract an increasingly demanding moviegoing audience.
The latest arrival on the local cinema landscape shows how this experience has evolved. Launched at the Kowloonbay International Trade and Exhibition Centre (Kitec) last month, The Metroplex is a nine-house, 1,100-seat multiplex that has Dolby Atmos immersive sound systems and state-of-the-art projection technology in all auditoriums.
Designed to be a venue for star-studded film festivals and premieres - it is a partner of this month's Hong Kong International Film Festival - the multiplex also features three green rooms, and a shower stall for celebrities to freshen up.
The best seats at The Metroplex are in the three special VIP houses. These can be rented out for parties, each with a maximum capacity of 20 people. The purple leather, electrically powered seats recline fully, and the concession stand's food and drinks offerings include truffle fries, panini, and alcohol.
The Metroplex is run independently, so it competes with established cinema chains. Senior programme manager Bede Cheng promises that, despite beginning operations with an entirely commercial film slate, this new multiplex will screen a mix of mainstream and art house films.
"We will work with different distributors and decide what we want to book," he says. But the venue's biggest challenge is its dependency on shuttle buses for transport between Hopewell Holdings-owned Kitec and the Kowloon Bay MTR station.
The Metroplex's general manager, Helena Young, acknowledges this will be an issue, particularly after a movie in its largest cinema when 430 people will expect transport.
Two competitors, United Artists (UA) and Orange Sky Golden Harvest group, have also recently upped the ante for an enhanced movie-going experience.
Golden Harvest's flagship cinema is The Sky at Olympian City, which opened in December in the location formerly occupied by Broadway Olympian City. The 45-year-old organisation's chief operating officer, Belinda Tang, says it wanted to have the best design and hardware to "create a new standard in cinema" for Hong Kong.
"The Sky has a very different style, it's not like an ordinary cinema. It has a New York loft-style," she says.
An American design firm with experience in cinemas drew up the plans for the screening rooms - a first in Hong Kong - as part of a renovation costing HK$50 million.
As The Sky is located on one floor, Tang says it presents a more unified look to audiences, compared to cinemas which are housed on separate floors of shopping malls.
The cinema also has a VIP room with "D-BOX technology motion systems" seats. "The D-BOX seats move according to the storyline, so the sensation is like when you are turning left and right when driving a car," Tang says.
Golden Harvest Cinemas is also expanding the use of its spaces for other events, such as live streaming of concerts from Japan. This year's World Cup finals will be broadcast in the cinemas in 3-D.
As for UA, its new HK$50 million Cine Times multiplex opened on the 13th floor of Times Square last November. Vicky Wong, deputy general manager of the UA Cinema Circuit, is pleased with the new location, noting that it offers audiences more leg room, and more movie options, than earlier UA cinemas.
"We had four houses at UA Times Square, but Cine Times has five. The total number of seats is about the same, at just under 900," Wong says.
"We can offer more movie choices and the houses are equipped with Dolby Atmos [surround sound technology]. The seats are arranged stadium seating style, so everyone can see clearly, unlike before there was a slope," she adds.
There are four film screening venues in Causeway Bay, but Wong believes the area can accommodate even more; the Newport Circuit's President Theatre and MCL Cinemas' MCL JP Cinema only have two screens each, and UA's Windsor Cinema has just three houses.
"Causeway Bay cinemas screen mainly commercial films, and if you don't screen the latest ones, movie distributors put pressure on you," she says.
Being up on the 13th floor does have its disadvantages, Wong says. "It's challenging in terms of the box office. When we were on the ground floor, people passing by could buy tickets in advance, but now they have to make an effort to go up to get them."
Soon after the opening of Cine Times, UA unveiled its latest acquisition: Cine Grand Century in Mong Kok's Grand Century Place, located where Golden Harvest's GH Mong Kok used to be.
Wong talks up Cine Grand Century's two-in-one space, where movie-goers can pay for tickets and food at the same time, and then pick up their purchases further down the counter to keep the flow of people moving. There are plans to apply for an alcohol licence to offer cocktails and beer at the cinema.
Wong hopes to cultivate a group of loyal Cine Times patrons by showing more than widely screened blockbusters.
"We used to partner with the HKIFF, but because of the renovations we couldn't make it this year. We hope to partner again with them next year," Wong says.