Like many people, one of my first jobs growing up was in a movie theatre. I spent summer 2005 sweeping up popcorn and sneaking into midday screenings of Wedding Crashers at an UltraStar Cinemas in San Diego. At the time, cup holders were considered fairly innovative and stadium seating was the height of luxury. Everyone still bought paper tickets at the box office, and the food menu was limited to popcorn, bad hot dogs and Junior Mints.
Today, moviegoers pay for tickets online and get their phones scanned at the door. They eat restaurant-style food and sip movie-themed cocktails in theatre lounges before the films. They can even order food and wine while relaxing in leather recliner seats.
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Moviegoers have increasingly innovative and expensive options, especially in Los Angeles, a laboratory of multiplex innovation. The cinema industry is trying everything it can — motion seats, virtual reality and even competitive video gaming — to see what takes hold.
It’s a matter of survival. Cinemas need to reinvent themselves for younger audiences who aren’t going to the multiplex as much. Movie theatres sold 1.3 billion tickets in the US and Canada last year, down from the recent peak of 1.6 billion in 2002, according to data from the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
“What you can get at a theatre now is vastly different from five years ago,” says Eric Handler, a media analyst with MKM Partners who follows the theatrical exhibition industry. “The exhibitors finally realised people were willing to pay a premium for a higher-quality viewing experience.”
Wining and dining
The 3-year-old iPic Theaters location in Westwood revels in luxury. Going to the venue, which has a concierge-like front desk and full bar and restaurant, is more like checking into a hotel than a movie theatre.
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The “premium” section of the auditorium fits only six rows of seats, but that’s the trade-off for full recliners equipped with pillows and blankets plus wide aisles for the wait staff. Each pair of seats (US$58 for two) comes with a menu created by Sherry Yard, who was Wolfgang Puck’s longtime pastry chef, and a blue-light button to summon a server for wine and snacks.
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Introducing food and wait service to the theatrical experience has forced companies to get creative. Smelly and crunchy dishes aren’t ideal, so instead they serve gourmet finger foods like green goddess turkey sliders, meatza pizza and tandoori chicken skewers.
Afterward, couples can venture to the darkly lit Tuck Room Tavern, the restaurant Yard opened a year ago. The bar features a glass tower that uses liquid nitrogen to create special cocktail flavouring.
Why the pampering?
“We’re competing with your home,” says Hamid Hashemi, CEO of Florida-based iPic Entertainment, which also operates a theatre in Pasadena. “It’s really simple. If there’s a way to watch a movie and improve the experience, why not do it?”
Rivals have taken note and are also attempting to turn a trip to the movies into a more plush and boozy date night. AMC Theatres, the world’s largest cinema chain, has been rapidly adding recliner chairs and dine-in options and recently completed renovations of two Burbank locations. The exhibition giant has opened 250 of its MacGuffins bars at its theatres, with movie-themed cocktail tie-ins, including a Baywatch Banana Hammock and a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Awesome Mix.
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The US division of the Mexican cinema chain Cinepolis has its own luxury theatre in Westlake Village, featuring waiter service and a full bar (some Cinepolis locations also have auditoriums with play areas for kids). And Cinemark opened its Playa Vista and XD location in 2015 with a reserve level “VIP experience” for patrons to order food and drinks.
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As the competition heats up, iPic is looking for ways to make its offerings even fancier. The company is introducing a “seating pod” that creates a private cocoon around pairs of moviegoers.
Bigger and better
The Vine Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard is one of LA’s oldest single-screen theatres dating to 1940. But inside is a centre of advanced technology and cinema innovation. San Francisco based Dolby Laboratories gutted and remodelled the space several years ago and now uses it to show its projection and surround-sound advancements to filmmakers such as Ang Lee.
There are 72 Dolby Cinema theatres in the United States with partner AMC — including the AMC Burbank 16 and AMC Century City 15 — complete with laser projection and an advanced 360-degree ring of speakers.
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The Vine theatre tour starts with Dolby’s signature “audio-visual pathway” from the lobby to the auditorium, a curved screen with projected images related to the movie the guests are about to see. As people walk into a screening of The Lego Batman Movie, for instance, they see animated graphics of the characters on the wall.
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Once inside, Dolby executive Stuart Bowling uses a before-and-after shot of a white dot on black screen to show how the company’s laser projectors can create a true inky black colour instead of the “milky grey” people are used to seeing on the silver screen.
“It really delivers true black level for the filmmaker to deliver a more compelling image,” Bowling says. “They all have gasps, whoas, occasionally an expletive from a filmmaker.”
Dozens of speakers on the ceilings and walls around the auditorium simulate sounds coming from different directions.
If it’s size you’re looking for, go to the nearby TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
The Canadian cinema technology company Imax Corp. put its stamp on the legendary theatre in 2013, installing a 94-wide screen (among the largest Imax theatres in North America). Later, Imax added a 4K laser projection system in what it called a “giant leap forward for cinema technology.”
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The biggest theatre chains, including AMC, Regal and Cinemark, are rolling out their own premium, large-format auditoriums for a more grandiose experience. Cinemark two years ago unveiled its revamped Playa Vista location, which includes a 450-seat auditorium known as XD with a giant 70-foot-wide screen and a sound system with that has more than 60-plus speakers.
Meanwhile, Belgian projector company Barco has been trying to promote its Barco Escape, an immersive three-screen format that surrounds the audience, though few movies have been designed for the experience. Regal LA Live, recently branded as a Barco Innovation Center, includes a Barco Escape auditorium, as does the Playa Vista Cinemark.
Another innovation that could change the movie business is the much-hyped virtual reality. Filmmakers and executives have talked up the grand possibilities of storytelling through an intense, immersive experience.
Many hurdles have prevented VR from going mainstream, including the lack of compelling content and that headsets can cost thousands of dollars each.
Still, Hollywood is adapting films to virtual-reality video games and designing promotional tie-ins for movies to supplement marketing efforts. Some major filmmakers are making VR a part of their toolkit. Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu recently displayed his VR project Carne y Arena at the Cannes Film Festival.
And theatres have become testing grounds for VR experiments. At the Regal LA Live entertainment complex, a marketing team for 20th Century Fox recently persuaded moviegoers wandering the lobby to strap on headsets and watch the free promotional tool Alien: Covenant In Utero. It’s a two-minute, 360-degree video that lets users experience what it’s like for an alien to burst out of someone’s chest.
Universal Pictures took a different approach with its own VR tie-in for The Mummy. The studio teamed with Glendale-based VR seating company Positron to create virtual-reality “theatres” with rows of swivelling seats equipped with headsets. The free 10-minute VR video simulates a scene in which Tom Cruise weightlessly tries to survive in a plummeting aeroplane.
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“This VR technology really allowed us to create content that would immerse audiences in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before,” said Austin Barker, head of creative content for Universal Pictures. “You can’t ignore its potential.”
Indeed, Imax is betting its new VR centres will become a part of the theatrical experience. During Memorial Day weekend, the company opened a virtual-reality hub in the lobby at the AMC Kips Bay in New York and has others in the works. Imax debuted an arcade-style virtual-reality centre near the Grove shopping complex in January. Customers pay US$7 to US$10 for the experience, which includes games based on movies such as shoot-em-up action flick John Wick.
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Down the hall from the Alien VR setup at Regal LA Live, moviegoers trickle into a 3:15 p.m. screening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in a 4DX auditorium promising an “absolute cinema experience.” Audience members pay US$24.50 a ticket for a theatre that uses moving seats, plus wind, water and odour effects, to simulate what’s happening on the screen.
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The seats pull back and rumble as Drax the Destroyer takes a flying leap at an alien foe. When something explodes, simulated smoke fills the theatre. The idea of 4DX, created by South Korean company CJ 4Dplex Co., is to make people feel as if they’re part of the action. It’s like a Universal Studios ride.
About 18 miles south of LA Live, a Torrance-based company called MediaMation makes its own competing version of the motion-seat technology, called MX4D. MediaMation workers in protective goggles assemble rows of seats that they will ship across the country, and crash dummies wait to test the seats’ safety.
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The company uses an on-site miniature theatre to demonstrate how their movies will be seen with its motion seating and other effects. In its version of Mad Max: Fury Road, moviegoers’ faces are blasted with air during a scene where a character’s face is sprayed with chrome paint.
While popular in Asia, the technology has spread slowly in the US, partly because of the cost. Still, MediaMation CEO Daniel Jamele says the idea is catching on with moviegoers who want an experience that they can’t get at home.
“We think there’s a real market here,” Jamele said.
Some theatres are even turning their theatres into video game centres. MediaMation is working with the TCL Chinese Theatre to retrofit one of its auditoriums for e-sports — competitive video-game tournaments where people play on the big screen.
Cinephiles may balk at the apparent sacrilege of the cinematic space, but theatres have been experimenting for years with this kind of “alternative content,” especially during weekday hours when auditoriums are empty.
Will you be at e3? MX4D will be showing the world's first MX4D eSports Theater! https://t.co/7akkYxsQ3w— MediaMation Inc (@MediaMationMX4D) May 12, 2017
iPic and other exhibitors have been getting into the in-theatre gaming business too. The company has teamed with video-gaming league Super League Gaming to host one-week Minecraft tournaments at its locations. Five-day passes for its July event cost US$100.
“That’s the dream of every theatre,” Jamele said. “It gives them an alternate source of income, which is what they need.”