Houston’s Star Cinema Grill Debuts the Biggest Samsung Onyx Screen in the Western Hemisphere at its New Location
Texas is known as one of the most competitive destinations for dine-in cinemas. As the home state of several specialized circuits, it boasts a number of options for patrons looking to enjoy dinner at the movies. Dine-in cinema pioneers like Alamo Drafthouse, Flix Brewhouse, (Marcus-owned) Movie Tavern, and Studio Movie Grill were all founded in the Lone Star State. Moviegoers in Texas have an ample variety of options to choose from, whether it’s a dine-in experience from a major circuit like Cinemark (which launched its first CUT! by Cinemark location in Frisco, Texas, earlier this year) or a high-end evening at one of the state’s three Ipic locations. With so much competition, how does a relatively new player in Texas’s dine-in cinema scene stand out?
For Houston-based Star Cinema Grill, the answer is simple: double down on the technology. Already counting nine locations—eight in Texas, one in Illinois, and a pair scheduled to open in the coming months—Star Cinema Grill has slowly been building its own niche within Texas’s ultracompetitive dine-in cinema market. That isn’t to say the food & beverage and hospitality aspects take a back seat: The company’s ownership also operates popular Houston restaurant State Fare under its corporate umbrella.
“We are constantly trying to elevate our brand. From the decor of our facilities to our food and beverage, hospitality, and of course our technology,” says Jason Ostrow, VP of development at Star Cinema Grill. “We feel a great way to differentiate ourselves is on the technology side. Over the past couple of years we’ve made the transition to laser projection technology and immersive sound systems like Dolby Atmos. We were trying to find something else that could differentiate our brand from everybody else.”
That “something else” is nothing other than the largest direct view LED cinema screen in the western hemisphere.
Looking to make a splash at its newest location in the Houston suburb of Richmond, Star Cinema Grill began speaking with Samsung about bringing its revolutionary Onyx screen to Texas in November 2018. The Star Cinema Grill team flew out to Southern California to see the first commercially installed Onyx screen in person, at the Pacific Winnetka location in Chatsworth, California. They were impressed by the 34-foot screen but encountered a roadblock from their chief executive officer, Omar Khan, when they returned to Houston.
“Omar Khan, the owner of the company, is a go-big-or-go-home type of guy,” says Ostrow. “We’re at this meeting and he tells Samsung, ‘I want a bigger model. What else do you have?’ We had seen that they had a bigger version on a spreadsheet but weren’t talking about it. Omar insisted, ‘I don’t want to talk about the smaller one. I only want to talk about the big one.’”
The result is the first 46-foot direct view LED cinema screen in the United States—an imposing, massive screen with flawless visual resolution. The screen is the obvious focal point of Star Cinema Grill’s main auditorium in Richmond, one of 12 halls in a brand-new complex that more closely resembles the lobby of a high-end restaurant or hotel at first glance. According to the Star Cinema Grill team, this location represented an opportunity to go all-out and create a first-class complex that would turn heads in the market.
Apart from the Samsung Onyx, the cinema features a complete suite of Dolby audio products (from amplifiers to Dolby Atmos and SLS Audio speakers), recliner seating by Inorca, Sony 4K laser projectors, and Harkness screens. Each auditorium has its own designated VIP row outfitted with privacy pods from
“We stepped things up in every aspect,” says Ostrow. “We have an all-Dolby audio system; we’re one of the first theaters to use Dolby’s CP950 processors and the DMA amplifiers. We went from seven or eight amplifiers to one or two per auditorium. It was the first time we tackled a dual-stack laser projector. When the Samsung Onyx came into the mix, we figured we might as well since we were already doing all these other things for the first time. We wanted to put as much into this building as we could, or at least as much as time and money would allow.”
Installing all this technology was the next challenge, a task that was assigned to the team at Moving Image Technologies (MIT). “I can’t give enough thanks to the team from MIT; they really stepped up to the plate. It was far smoother than we had anticipated, considering the scale of the project,” says Samsung’s Nick Conti, business development senior manager for the company’s cinema division.
One of the most striking aspects of the Star Cinema Grill’s new location is the decision to feature laser projectors, a dual stack laser auditorium, and Samsung’s Onyx screen within the same complex. That means each of the site’s 12 auditoriums features premium image solutions, complemented by Dolby’s audio suite, effectively embracing the premium large format for the entire theater.
Ostrow admits it was one of his team’s biggest fears: with the audiovisual bar set so high, would audiences truly be able to tell the difference between one premium format and another? Consumer reaction suggests they can; a cursory glance at the cinema’s reviews on Facebook, Google, and Yelp turned up frequent positive mentions of the Onyx auditorium. Granted, those impressions might just as easily be the result of marketing points earned for being a pioneering exhibitor with the technology. In fact, being the first-to-market was part of the draw in taking a gamble on Samsung’s premium-priced cinema screen. “We knew there would be a draw of attention we could get from being on the forefront of what could be the next thing in cinema,” admits Ostrow. “At the beginning, our messaging was purely technical. Then we shifted gears to marketing it from the innovation angle: this is the biggest cinema LED screen in the western hemisphere, and it’s here in your hometown—come check it out.”
On a recent press visit to the site, I was surprised to see how the guest experience relies on a hospitality-conscious approach to the dine-in cinema concept. From the ticket purchase to pre–show time drinks at the lobby bar—featuring full alcohol service and 18 beers on tap—to finding my way to my seat, every part of my visit was met with careful attention from the staff.
“It is one of the cores of our business—the hospitality,” says Ostrow. “We model a lot of our business on that experience of walking into a high-end hotel, where the clerk or concierge can tell you about the amenities of that facility and make you feel welcome and comfortable from the first moment.”
Part of that training includes teaching the cinema’s technical specifications as thoroughly as the food and drink options on the menu. “We quiz our staff about the technology in the facility, make sure they know every detail so when guests come in, they can speak to that and help sell that ticket to a premium auditorium,” continues Ostrow. “We’ve really taken an aggressive approach in-house to educating the thousands of people coming through our doors that maybe didn’t even know that we have this technology. It’s really exciting to sit back and listen to the staff be excited about the Onyx, Atmos, laser projectors, or the premium seating pods—to listen to them talk about it passionately to our guests. We believe that will ultimately influence a guest choosing to experience those amenities.”
That trifecta of food, service, and technology is Star Cinema Grill’s not-so-secret weapon in winning over the public in its Richmond location. While the attraction of Samsung’s Onyx screen has helped put this dine-in circuit on the map, it’s certainly not the only draw for local moviegoers. From top to bottom, Star Cinema Grill’s Richmond location is a reflection of how exhibition has been raising the standard on the moviegoing experience in recent years. Each seat is designed to be the best seat in the house, regardless of any associated upcharge. The real challenge will be in seeing which of these premium concepts stand the test of time, both within the circuit or the industry at large.