Nestled into a side block of industrial-looking buildings on the outskirts of Manhattan’s Chinatown sits a new choice for New York moviegoers, the upscale Metrograph Theatre. In a city overflowing with multiplexes showing all the latest blockbusters, the indie cinema, which opened its doors on March 4, aims to be a kind of oasis; for months, it has promised carefully curated programming for its two screens, including a two-tiered, 175-seat ground floor theater ready for any film format short of the ultra-wide, Tarantino-fetishized 70mm, its rows of seats made from wood salvaged from an old sugar factory in Brooklyn.
The Metrograph is one in a wave of new theaters across the country banking on high-end amenities to tempt viewers off the couch and away from their Netflix accounts and home theater systems. It’s filled with proud bullet points that say luxury: two fully stocked bars, a concession stand, a restaurant that seats up to 45 people, and a cinema-focused bookstore. The plan is to program a strong mix of repertory films with new releases; its first weeks will include classics from Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, as well as the new indie art film A Space Program. While New York still has its share of independent theaters, most are as old as the movies they show. The hope, as with other theaters like it, is that Metrograph’s extra touches will attract visitors from all over by making going to the movies feel special.
For years, cinemas — both independent and chains — grew shabby with complacency, letting their venues get rundown and popcorn go stale. While competition from cable-TV and home video formats going back to VHS has been a fact of life since the ’80s, theaters seemed to have slept on the increased competition from streaming media: Box office admissions in the U.S. and Canada fell in both 2013 and 2014, and now lag far behind the high-water marks of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Now that a century’s worth of films are available at the touch of a button in any home with Internet access, they have to fight for every customer.
As such, theaters nationwide have spent recent years rushing to refurbish and rebuild, to create more opulent destinations that feel as much like a mini-vacation or fancy night on the town as they do a trip to the movie house. Different operators are going about it in different ways, but they all point to a renewed effort to win Americans’ hearts and eyes.
Winning Moviegoers’ Hearts Through Their Stomachs
The Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which opened in 2011, programs first-run features and curates repertory programs, with in-theater servers who bring food to patrons as the film plays. And it’s not just popcorn; moviegoers can pick at raw kale salads, pork belly skewers, and ice cream sundaes. Both the Nitehawk and Metrograph are part of a menu movement led by the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a growing independent chain of theaters run by and for film nerds.
Launched by Tim League in 1997, the chain has grown from a failed location in Bakersfield bought on a whim (at the time, League was an engineer and his wife a microbiologist) to 22 movie houses and counting, with a home base in Austin. The root of its meteoric success, which has seen it become a favorite of film buffs in more and more metropolitan locations (one is scheduled to open in Brooklyn later this year), isn’t rocket science: Along with its world-class film programming, each Drafthouse location holds nightly events and boasts an upscale menu that includes daily brunch and gluten-free pizza.
Some Drafthouse theaters also house bars and restaurants, unique to each location. One of the Austin theaters, for example, has fried chicken and baby-back ribs; in Omaha, they’ve got Reuben pizza, sesame-smeared salmon, and crème brulee French toast during brunch.
Another small chain, the Studio Movie Grill, which has 22 locations scattered throughout the country, also offers a higher-end menu during film screenings. Its selection of burgers and sliders is quite extensive; the “Megaplex” burger and sriracha chicken sliders highlight the menu.
Cinemas as Community Centers
Another aspect of the Drafthouse model, the theater as local gathering place, has been embraced by many smaller theaters around the country. One particularly successful example is the New Parkway Theater in Oakland, Calif. When local J Moses Caesar led an effort to reopen the then-shuttered Parkway Speakeasy Theater in December 2009, he zeroed in on making sure it served and represented the East Bay, making it as much a community center as a movie house.
A community bulletin board and paintings by local artists adorn the walls at the New Parkway, which has couches in its screening rooms instead of seats, and offers board games for all visitors. The theater emphasizes community engagement on a nightly basis, too. Tuesdays are for bingo, Wednesdays feature “drink and draw” arts and crafts, and Thursdays put visitors’ movie trivia knowledge to the test. Most impressive is its “Karma Cinema” program: On Wednesdays, patrons pay what they can, and 20 percent of the night’s profits go to a local charity. Additionally, every night sees some investment in the community by virtue of the New Parkway’s business practices.
“The New Parkway is committed to prioritizing local vendors and promoting sustainable, green practices,” its website promises. “For political, environmental, and health reasons, we do not serve food that contains high-fructose corn syrup, fully hydrogenated oils, or any palm oil products, and most of our foods are prepared entirely in our own commercial kitchen. Additionally, we strive to produce as little waste as possible – this is why we opt for cloth napkins and offer reusable metal straws for our milkshakes and smoothies.”
The Warren theaters, which have a few locations in Kansas, don’t go that far, but they do emphasize family. Among their amenities: a separate room for arcades and games, and even a “cry room,” where parents can take their screaming kiddos and continue to watch the movie.
Big Chains Take Comfort (in Recliners)
The upscale trend has not gone ignored by the nation’s major theater chains, which built many of the homogenous multiplexes that sent the newer theaters on a different path. AMC, the country’s largest chain after its purchase of Carmike, committed $600 million to refurbishing most of its theaters with wide red leather recliners. Screening rooms have been gutted, as well, creating the sort of comfort-driven, if sterile, environment predicted not long ago in Pixar’s Wall-E; in some cases, they’re matched with top-end projection systems in a set-up called AMC Prime. They’re not as luxurious or bed-like as you’ll find in one chain in Malaysia, but it’s a big improvement over the cramped, sticky chairs to which we’ve grown accustomed.
One caveat: The big upgrade does push up ticket prices to compensate for reducing the number of seats in each refurbished theater. On average, two-thirds of the seating has been removed from a given screening room. Regal Theatres, the nation’s other huge chain, has also made a similar commitment to comfort. And both chains have emphasized better food and, at some locations, in-theater service, as well. Finally, the best incentive to get off the couch and turn off the TV: An even more comfortable couch and a bigger screen than you have at home.