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Cinemas entice viewers with luxury, comfort

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By Minneapolis Star Tribune
Saturday, July 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

No one tells moviegoers at Marcus Theatres in Oakdale, Minn., not to put their feet on the seats.

In fact, patrons are encouraged to do so.

The theater is one of a growing number to offer plush, roomy leather seats that let patrons recline into a classic La-Z-Boy position while enjoying “22 Jump Street” or “Jersey Boys.”

“They're fabulous,” said Cosimo Yapello, 18, of Mahtomedi, Minn. “I would way rather go to a theater with recliners.”

The new loungers are one of many ways that theater owners are working to lure customers away from Netflix and 60-inch TVs at home. Theaters are adding restaurant-quality food, alcohol, on-site lounges and reserved seating, not to mention better sound and bigger screens.

For many theater owners, the upgrades are a matter of necessity. As the home movie experience has improved, theater attendance in the United States has dropped from 1.57 billion in 2002 to 1.34 billion in 2013, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

“Our industry was focused on sight and sound in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s,” said Rolando Rodriguez, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres. “Now we've moved into the next phase where we focus on customer service, including where the customer is sitting for two and a half hours.”

AMC Entertainment is betting big on the recliner to reel in more customers. It plans to spend $600 million in the next five years for recliner reseat conversions, according to a securities filing.

The high-back recliners are an upgrade from rockers. At the touch of a button, the seat eases back as the leg rest rises quietly and effortlessly. There's no jockeying to claim the arm rest. Each seat has its own, including one with a cup holder and one that can be raised for couples who want to snuggle closer.

Fully reclined, each seat takes up about 6 12 feet, along with wide aisles that don't require moving sideways to scrunch between rows.

In Minnesota's Twin Cities area, recliners are available at 25 Marcus screens in Oakdale and Rosemount and 16 screens at AMC Coon Rapids.

But theatergoers shouldn't expect a recliner makeover takeover. The new loungers cost about $500 each plus installation.

Theaters that are doing well, such as AMC Southdale and Rosedale, have little incentive to spend the money. “Recliners work well at an underperforming older property,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the national theater owners group in Los Angeles. “Theaters doing well in densely populated areas don't need to do it.”

Mike Muller, who owns eight suburban Twin Cities theaters, has no intention of adding the expensive seats.

He's impressed with the attendance figures he's seen at theaters with recliners, but he's not convinced of their staying power. “We have high-back rockers in all of our theaters, which we think are a good compromise. Time will tell.”

Meanwhile, Muller and other theater owners continually study the competition for ways to keep movie lovers coming back. Monster screens are Muller's trademark: screens 35 feet tall by 80 feet wide — the largest in Minnesota, according to his website. “Needless to say, don't sit in the first three rows,” he said with a laugh.

Theatres at Mall of America offer 30 D-Box seats that move in tandem with the action on the screen, varying from vibrations when a car shifts into gear to a backward jolt when a character is punched on screen. Although they have been around nationally for several years, Mall of America is the only Minnesota theater to offer them.

“We have established regulars who love them,” said Chris Grap, business development and project manager at the mall theaters. “They will be beating down the doors to experience ‘Guardians of the Galaxy' in a D-Box seat when it's released in August.”

D-Box seats, which are only available with select action movies, cost movie fans an extra $8. Theaters also are upcharging for 3-D and larger screens. In many cases, patrons are willing to pay extra. “We want to make going to the movies special again,” Rodriguez said.

Several years ago, ShowPlace Icon Theatre in St. Louis Park, Minn., jolted moviegoers with new concepts such as reserved seating, VIP theaters and state-of-the-art screens and sound.

ShowPlace's VIP theaters, complete with extra-large memory foam seats, wide aisles and alcohol and restaurant service, are so popular that many patrons now refuse to see a movie there unless it's playing in one of the two VIP theaters. (ShowPlace has 14 theaters.)

“They're always the first to sell out. It's a luxury that people have grown accustomed to,” said Matt Gamble, marketing and events coordinator at ShowPlace Icon 14.

VIP customers flock to the lounges and restaurants at ShowPlace, where soda and popcorn seem as out of place as VCR tapes next to house-made Neapolitan pizza, caprese paninis and specialty cocktails named after movies, such as the “Something About Mary” (vodka, bloody Mary mix, olive, pickle and lime).

In some other theaters, the lounge/bar area is open to everyone 21 and older, whether they're seeing a movie or not.

The soon-to-be completed Take Five lounge in Marcus' Oakdale theater will have a separate entrance next to the theater. No movie ticket is required, but the watering hole comes complete with a 20-foot movie screen, upscale decor, Zaffiro's gourmet thin pizzas, sandwiches, appetizers and even — hold on to your popcorn — nutritious salads. They'll be available in the lounge and in bistros being added in three of Oakdale's auditoriums.

It's a stretch to say that theaters have gone gourmet, but AMC is upgrading its concessions throughout the country to include hot foods such as chicken tenders, pizza and french fries. The expanded menus aren't necessarily more profitable — popcorn has a tremendous margin — but they're offered because they're what consumers want.

And consumers who aren't sipping on wine, beer and cocktails can wash it all down at self-service drink stations. More theaters are installing Pepsi Spire or Coke Freestyle fountains with scores of flavors that can be mixed into customized concoctions.

Many of these enhancements come at a price. The average ticket price nationwide in 2013 was $8.13, according to the theater owners group, but consumers pay $2 to $8 more for 3-D, extra-large screens, D-Box and VIP seats, not to mention higher prices for upgraded food.

Some theater owners who have installed recliners say they're not raising prices, yet. Even without higher prices, the new seating can improve a struggling theater's finances by bringing in more customers.

Recliners reduce theater seating by about 60 percent, according to Ryan Noonan, director of public relations for AMC Entertainment. But even with fewer seats, box office receipts are up 80 percent in AMC theaters with recliners.

Plus, theaters that were underperforming before the addition of the Dream Loungers, as Marcus Theatres calls their recliners, don't want to scare off a new audience with higher admission.

That's just fine with movie lover Yapello, who sees only one potential downside to luxury recliners — missing the action.

“They're so comfortable that I might fall asleep.”

 

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