Living Large: The Rise of Boutique and Luxury Cinemas in North America

The sushi at LaGuardia airport isn’t actually that bad. Neither are the short rib empanadas at Miami International. That 45-minute wait to go through security, culminating with the dependably uncomfortable TSA pat down, isn’t as stressful as it usually is after sipping on a mimosa at one of the many lounges at Dallas–Fort Worth. You can get a massage at Detroit Metropolitan, stock up on high-end fashion at San Francisco International, and soon you’ll even be able to catch a movie at Portland International. In fact, cinemas have popped up in several airports around the world, including Delhi, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In short, today’s airports have become noticeably more comfortable in recent years—and, in turn, done a significantly better job at enticing customers to spend more money while awaiting their flights.

Airports aren’t alone in this transformation. Every single one of the major sports arenas and stadiums in the United States offers a luxury or VIP experience, at a price point to match the premium amenities that go along with it. A better view of the field now comes with “standard” features such as Wi-Fi, leather seats, flat-screen TVs, and private bars. From a fully operational nightclub at Miami’s Marlins Park to catching an NFL game from a hot tub in Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, the diversity of ticket offerings and in-stadium experiences has grown dramatically.

Today’s coffee shops, thanks to Starbucks and its ilk, have seen a similar shift. In the same way that buying a cup of coffee today is different than it was 15 years ago, exhibitors around the nation are investing large sums to transform the cinema-going experience. The most prevalent change in this regard comes with luxury seating, as major circuits continue adding the feature to both new and existing locations. Regal, for example, is expecting to feature luxury seating in about 30 percent of its auditoriums by the end of 2017—thanks in large part to an attendance increase of 25 percent per screen at locations that were converted prior to 2016. Cinemark is looking to reach the 1,000-screen mark for luxury seating by year’s end and plans to feature the amenity in around 20 percent of their domestic screens. Another global player, Wanda-owned AMC, expects to hit 3,300 screens by 2018. Over the past couple of years, luxury seating has gone from a trend among major circuits to a global arms(rest) race.

It doesn’t begin and end with enhanced seating—the luxury cinema concept in the United States has been synonymous with the rise of cinema dining. In fact, it has opened up new avenues for smaller circuits to compete with larger players; premium seating and a well-crafted menu can make all the difference on a location-by-location basis. Such has been the case for a chain like iPic Theatres, which has been able to carve out a niche for itself in the U.S. market through its 15 locations nationwide by offering patrons a premium experience that can be customizable by each auditorium.

New York City has seen a slew of openings and announcements related to these boutique concepts throughout 2016. Perhaps the origin of this trend’s recent emergence in the Big Apple can be traced back to the opening of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Inaugurated in 2011 in a former parking lot adjacent to the historic Walter Reade Theater, the space features two state-of-the-art screening rooms, an amphitheater for public talks and events, and an adjoining restaurant with an ample wine selection. The additional screens provided the Film Society an opportunity to carry first-run and independent features, complementing the repertory programming at the Walter Reade, while the cafe welcomed an additional revenue stream. It was a bold move for the cultural institution, and more commercial players in the city have since taken note. The Metrograph, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, opened this year, and the two-screen picture house has already attracted a fair share of adulation from cinephiles. A grab-and-go concessions space is supplemented with a second-floor restaurant, where guests can enjoy weekend brunch or cocktails before a film. It’s a familiar formula for success: a focus equally divided on a sleek design, eclectic programming across two screens, and a stand-alone restaurant.

Celluloid Junkie co-founder and editor Patrick von Sychowski sees parallels to the boutique format in the United Kingdom. “In the UK you are seeing art-house cinemas reinventing themselves as premium screens with coffee, wine, and nibbles. Significantly, they have had alcohol licenses for a long time and are not seen as attracting the ‘wrong’ type of drinkers/spectators—while at the same time they are expanding programming to also show blockbusters such as Bond, Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts.”

New York City’s new boutique cinemas are also thriving under the cinema-dining format. The group behind Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema is planning a second Brooklyn location, taking over the former Pavilion Theater in Park Slope with a multimillion-dollar renovation. Alamo Drafthouse, a national circuit, opened its long-awaited Brooklyn location in late October, boasting seven screens and the circuit’s eclectic mix of film programming and menu options.

Another national chain, Landmark Theatres, is scheduled to open its own high-end cinema on the west side of Manhattan this spring. The eight-screen complex will come equipped with laser projection and a full bar to complement more traditional offerings like luxury seating. It will be the second luxury location for Landmark in a matter of months; a seven-screen property in Miami, the company’s first foray into Florida, will be opening in December.

International exhibitors have adopted the concept in renovations as well; France’s Gaumont-Pathé invested millions of Euros and spent nearly two years overhauling their Les Fauvettes location in Paris. Most notably, Les Fauvettes greets passersby with a breathtaking, innovative take on the marquee: a cascading collection of video tiles lights up with film stills of titles that are currently playing. The minimalist interior design is equally awe-inspiring, giving the space a lounge-like vibe that feels miles away from a traditional multiplex lobby.

There are important differences, and admittedly a certain degree of overlap, in distinguishing between “boutique” and “luxury” cinemas. The former is a new take on the art house, while the latter offers a slew of premium experiences for a more general audience. Von Sychowski believes the boutique model can coexist with luxury cinema in the same markets, “not because it is targeting an income bracket, but because it is targeting a specific age bracket,” he explains. “It is for people who can afford it, that want a glass of wine with their film, and don’t want to be bothered by kids leveling up Pokémons in the seat next to them. But this is also a segment of exhibition that will never expand in appealing to more than 20 percent of the population (30 to 35 percent in wealthier urban areas), but can capture 10 percent additional revenue at the box office. The millennials will be steered towards IMAX and 4DX, which the Gen Xers will only go to for nostalgia blockbusters like Star Wars or Star Trek, but not for Fantastic Beasts.”

Luxury cinemas aren’t difficult to find overseas: just south of the border, Latin America’s top exhibitors have fully embraced and in some ways perfected a more corporate luxury/VIP concept. Mexican exhibitor Cinépolis has years of experiencing rolling out its Cinépolis VIP locations in LatAm markets. It became one of its early entry strategies into the U.S. market, as the chain told Boxoffice in a May 2014 article, launching Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas as part of its expansion.

And then of course, there are the Asian markets. “I would go so far as to argue that the luxury concept actually originated in Asia-Pacific, driven by exhibitors such as Golden Village with its Gold Class, which was partly imported from Australia, where Village Roadshow pioneered it,” says von Sychowski. He cites theaters such as Bangkok’s Embassy Diplomat Screens, part of Thailand’s Major Cineplex Group, which provides an experience that can feel closer to a luxury airport lounge. The theater’s amenities include USB chargers, a seat that reclines into a bed, and dining options that seem to be taken from a tasting menu. These features come at a significantly higher price point for admission. In October, for example, Cineworld’s new VIP cinema experience in Glasgow was priced at £30 per ticket for regular customers.

While this is a trend on the rise, both renovations and new builds of high-end locations can represent a high risk / high reward due to their cost. There is no clear indication that they will be replacing the multiplex model anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean its influence is lost on the multiscreen locations that have proliferated since the 1990s. “The future of the multiplex is to slim down. It is doing this right under our noses by creating artificial scarcity by reducing the number of seats and introducing reserved seating,” predicts von Sychowski. “This will not increase overall attendance significantly but means that occupancy doubles and people are more likely to book ahead or spread through the week. It also steers demographics to spectacle screens, like 4DX or Barco Escape, or premium formats like IMAX or Dolby Cinema, while luxury seating caters to the people who would also want to catch the Met Opera in cinemas.”

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