Suburban movie theaters get swankier, expand offerings
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The waiter refills your wineglass and sets down a plate of food, maybe a modern Mediterranean dish or a freshly grilled burger.
After eating, you lie back in your oversized plush chair — a seat you selected ahead of time, online — and put your feet up. Wrapped in a blanket, you watch a newly released movie on the big screen, enhanced by all the latest digital video and sound effects.
Welcome to suburban moviegoing in 2013.
A trip to the movies in the suburbs — and around the U.S. — has evolved these past few years as theaters compete more intensely with each other, and with online movie streaming and other entertainment options.
That means theaters that once offered little more than popcorn and a movie have expanded their services, upgraded their food offerings and increased the use of technology.
The changes are helping reverse the sagging trend in box office receipts and are attracting niche audiences, industry experts say.
Teens and young people might prefer megaplexes in shopping centers, with space for people to mill around afterward. But more affluent, adult moviegoers are being drawn to smaller, swankier, dine-in theaters like Muvico in Rosemont, iPic in South Barrington or the soon-to-open Star Cinema Grill in downtown Arlington Heights, where the focus is on comfort.
Other theaters emphasize technology, like IMAX, RPX or 3-D effects, or specialty interests such as independent or foreign language films, or bargain ticket prices. Still others, like the Hollywood Palms in Naperville, offer theme theaters paying tribute to undersea adventure or "The Wizard of Oz."
Bargain theaters still dot the suburbs. Even on a Friday or Saturday night, tickets to Academy Award-winning movies like "Life of Pi" or "Django Unchained" are just $1.75 at Picture Show in Bloomingdale ($1 on Tuesdays), or $5 at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, where you also get to hear an organ concert before the show on weekend nights.
Price is less of an issue at the upscale theaters, where the focus is on the restaurant and bar end of the business. The idea behind their business, theater managers say, is to make going to the movies an all-in-one "night out" rather than just a stop. That means offering a meal and a place to hang out before or after the show.
"To compete with the biggest theater chains, the smaller, private operators had to find alternatives," said Omar Khan, CEO of Star Cinema Grill, which is in the process of transforming the Arlington Theatre in Arlington Heights into a restaurant-bar-theater combination. The new theater, set to open around Memorial Day, will have only 707 seats total — half the number the old theater had. But it will be a more "controlled" environment with extra staff, better food and a higher level of service, Khan said.
Star Cinema Grill plans to open several more theaters like this in the Chicago suburbs.
"Convenience is a big factor of why the concept has been so successful," Khan said. "Our ticket pricing is the same as megaplexes ... but you're going to pay what you'd pay for (food) at a restaurant. Not higher than that, but competitive."
And food goes beyond burgers. At the Studio Movie Grill in Wheaton, for example, the menu includes ribs and a kale-avocado salad with lemon tarragon dressing.
An intimate, hip vibe exists at the iPic movie theater in the Arboretum of South Barrington. One theater has just 50 seats, and the largest has 76 seats. The seats are more spaced out, with tables between them, giving people room to spread out.
But the added space and luxury comes with a price. Ticket prices range from $13 to $25 per person, depending if you are an iPic member (membership is free) or if you want to kick in an extra $7.50 for "premium plus" seating. You can reserve your seats in advance online.
At luxury theaters like this, someone escorts you to your seat, like a maitre d' at a restaurant.
"It's like sitting in first class. You don't mind paying a bit more, because you're getting a lot more," iPic Marketing Manager Jamie Young said.
In iPic, there is a modern bar with pool tables, wine towers that work like soda dispensers and a menu that includes chef-prepared dishes and a $130 bottle of wine. But you can also just get a tub of popcorn and a soft drink if you want.
"It's really something that's caught on," Young said, adding that iPic is also an expanding company. The chain has a location in Bolingbrook.
Megaplex theaters are also continuing to do well, attracting teens and young adults, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"Movie theaters had to adapt and offer more," he said. "Shopping centers want to have movie theaters, because they bring people in. So movie theaters will continue to play a large role in shopping centers."
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