Work is quiet right now for Inorca Seating’s Karla Banuelos—for obvious reasons. Personal life, not so much—a worldwide pandemic, a quarantine, and six sons between the ages of one and seventeen will do that. With the world (understatement incoming) in a hectic place right now, the long-time seating executive took the time in late March to speak with Boxoffice Pro about her time on the frontline of the “recliner revolution.”
Banuelos studied architecture in her hometown of Tijuana, working in construction for a time before changing fields—and countries—to work in landscape architecture in San Diego, California. By chance, a friend was working for San Diego-based Seating Concepts and recommended her for a job. “I started doing seating layout, AutoCAD, the distribution of auditoriums for schools and churches and cinema,” Banuelos recalls. “That was meant to be a temporary job, and in the meantime I would find something more interesting.”
Cut to ten years later. The “more interesting” revealed itself as a series of different positions within Seating Concepts—project designer, project coordinator, project manager, and then finally, in 2010, sales. Five years later, Banuelos moved to Colombia-based Inorca Seating, where she now serves as their North American commercial representative.
If you’ve been to a trade show over the last decade, chances are good you’ve at least seen Banuelos, if not met her in person. “‘Oh, they just travel,’” Banuelos remembers thinking about salespeople before she became one of their number. “‘They have fun at all these shows in Vegas and Miami.’” Reality proved more challenging and more rewarding—the former, Banuelos admits, at least in part due to her love of a seven-inch heel.
Banuelos thrives off connecting with the “big family” that makes up the theatrical exhibition industry, though even she admits she sometimes takes it too far. In 2014, she estimates she traveled 40 weeks out of 52. “That’s when my husband told me, ‘We better stop! Let’s just slow it down a bit’… It’s difficult to leave this industry, even though in the last three years I had three babies. I’ve been working from the hospital nonstop, making phone calls. One day a client told me, ‘Didn’t you just have a baby?’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, but…’”
Banuelos’ decade of working in cinema seating sales coincides neatly with a period of evolution within that field, one that saw theaters in the United States rip out their old seats and replace them with recliners en masse. Cinépolis was an early originator of the concept, Banuelos explains, introducing “custom, full leather, very expensive recliners” to select theaters in Mexico as far back as the early ‘90s. In America, the seating trends were different, leaning more towards rockers, retractible armrests, and the occasional loveseat. “Golden Ticket Cinema and AMC were the initiators ten, twelve years ago here in the United States, creating the concept or acquiring the idea from other exhibits in other countries, including Cinépolis. It worked!”
AMC started by putting recliners in one auditorium, lowering seating capacity while at the same time justifying a higher ticket price. Dovetailing nicely with a shift towards recliner seating was a shift towards dine-in cinema, both providing customers with enhanced amenities that sold a trip to the movies as a complete experience. Theaters “began converting completely to recliners. You saw that from the very large exhibitors, like AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Marcus, down to the independents. They invest in this because they get their money in return pretty fast, with concession sales and with full houses.”
If the industry’s already been sold on recliners, what’s next? (After, of course, cinemas open back up and have the capital to spend on seating.) “Every single seating company, they’re going the extra mile,” says Banuelos, adding amenities like heaters, privacy panels, lumbar support, electric headrests, and under-table lights so customers at dine-in theaters can read their menus. As the face of Inorca Seating in North America, Banuelos is the one who fields requests for features from exhibitors. Some of them she likes. Some of them she initially doesn’t, but comes around on—like built-in USB chargers, which she at first thought would encourage phone usage. But people “unplug the recliners to charge their phones anyway,” leaving the recliner seemingly broken to the next customer. And some requests, due to her background in design, she’s able to flag as not making much sense at all. “I have had orders where they ask for white upholstery in the cinema. It might look beautiful, but you’re going to have all the reflection on the screen!”
“I know the client will do whatever they want,” Banuelos admits. “But it’s our responsibility to suggest what may or may not work. Sometimes they still want to do it, and sometimes they’ll listen to you.”
One customer request has begun to change front rows across North America and beyond. A customer asked if Inorca could make “sort of like a bed in the front row of the cinema,” giving customers incentive to sit in what’s usually seen as an auditorium’s worst bit of real estate. Banuelos, working with her engineers, developed Inorca’s chaise lounger, with a table in the middle and seating for two. “We presented it to the owner [of Inorca]. He said, ‘No, Karla, you’re crazy’ I’m not crazy! [The customer is] asking for it!” Inorca produced a small run of the chaise lounger, a sample of which was introduced at a trade show. “It was a showstopper,” Baneulos recalled. “Every single person stopped at our booth. Everybody liked it. It’s pricey, but a few customers took on the challenge to put it in their cinema: Santikos [Entertainment] in Texas, Caribbean Cinemas in Puerto Rico. The Chinese Theatres in San Diego and a few in South America.”
“We don’t know what else is coming” in terms of seating innovations, says Banuelos. “We don’t know if we’re going to go back to rockers or compact seats. We don’t know if we’re going to go forward and [have sections in auditoriums resembling] the first class section of an airplane.”
Right now, of course, new seats aren’t on the minds of theater professionals—how to best clean and sanitize their existing ones are. (On top of several hundred other things.) As cinemas across North America began shutting down, Banuelos says she reached out personally to all her clients, keeping the lines of communication open and instructing them on how best to clean their seats. No Clorox or harsh chemicals on leather or vinyl, she says. “Don’t panic. Clean the seats more often, now, than you’re standard cleaning procedure. And we will be OK. Mild soap and water, low pH soap. … We encouraging cleaning, but also take care of the chair, because otherwise in six months we’re going to start seeing the vinyl on chairs cracking, peeling off.”
“Right now we’re taking a big hit,” Banuelos acknowledges. “But we’re going to come out stronger.” Eventually, the camaraderie that she values so much within the industry—and that has now shifted to Zoom calls and webinars—will return. “The best thing about working in this industry, and [specifically] in the seating business with Inorca, is interacting with customers, with designers, with architects, and adding my touch to every single project. Every time I see images of the [seats] that I’ve sold or that we’ve produced in there media, it’s like ‘Oh, I remember when were first contacted, when we were discussing the concept. And now it’s a reality!’ It’s a perfect thing.”