EDITORIAL: What Will Be The American Movie Theater Experience In 2015?

After a trip to an AMC theater to see The Theory of Everything (which is an incredibly moving and powerful film that you must see), I found myself questioning the current state of the American movie theater experience. In a market where everything is now a “luxury” experience, it seems as if every theater is doing their best to turn themselves into a faux-luxury cinema – and to be honest, it feels completely unnecessary.

As a first-timer at this specific theater, I imagined my experience would be the same as most AMC theaters. Upon entering I found that the entire place had been given an attempted luxury redesign, and the faults were showing immediately. I waited in line at the box office for a good 15 minutes, which seemed like an incredibly long time for there only being three people in front of me. This traffic jam was mainly caused by the new system of picking your seats at the box office. I have done this many times before when going to other luxury theaters, and it works just fine there because those theaters are built for the sole purpose of providing a luxury experience for the customer. This did not translate well for AMC, and it especially showed when the theater could not handle multiple sold out shows for a giant family film like The Hunger Games. This extra “choose your theater experience” adventure only caused massive rifts in the viewing experience. None of the three families in front of me at the box office chose seats next to, or even near each other, and groups of kids had to split up into twos and threes, leaving the adults to sit in single free seats alone (which I am sure they well very much enjoyed).

This facelift to the theater is also catered mainly to a younger audience, and by younger I mean tech-savvy. An older couple that was making their way into the theater during previews needed assistance with a flashlight to find their exact seats. I don’t blame them for this, but I can only imagine what this would be like for a sold-out blockbuster such as The Avengers.

This visit to the theater was an early afternoon showing on a Saturday, sometime around one o’clock. The weekend was only providing The Hunger Games as the big blockbuster of the weekend, but what would happen if it was July, or August? If AMC could not even handle one large film, what would it do come DC and Marvel films clashing against each other for summer hits? Not only did the new experience slow down entry past even the box office, it created a catastrophic traffic jam leading all the way from the box office, to the concession stand, and finally the theater itself. This is where I began asking, “Is this really necessary?”

Now, I am a big fan of luxury theaters. I consider the movies a second home, and anything that makes that experience more relaxing and comforting is always welcomed. But, when I do experience luxury cinemas, I experience luxury cinemas. I take the extra time in preparation; I am prepared for the extra cost, and plan my outing early. The market for AMC theaters is generally not that of a 100-percent lux experience, except for their single screen “premium cinemas,” which do just fine, again, because they are built for exactly that.

Speaking with Liam Reddy, manager of Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theater in Natick, MA, he notes that “with so many streaming and inexpensive DVD rental options, not to mention incredibly fast turn-arounds from theater to home release these days, combined with what was a brutal year in 2014 for blockbusters, movie theater chains are starting to panic. They can’t budge much on ticket prices because the studios and distributors aren’t on their licensing fees, and with lowered attendance came increases in concessions prices to just to stay afloat. Theater business is not trending well, so these major chains are putting all of their eggs in one basket, a premium experience that you simply can’t get at home.”

While commenting on the direness of the current state of the industry, he also says that “there is still the average moviegoer who loves the simplicity of your standard theater experience, doesn’t want to wait in line to pick seats for a matinee show on a Tuesday, and who doesn’t want to pay even the extra $3 to $4 for 3D, much less a “premium” experience.” Mr. Reddy has an interesting lens from this situation, for the theater he manages is not your typical big AMC theater, but a single IMAX screen located inside a furniture store. The audience that makes their way to the IMAX theater knows exactly what they are getting, a massive movie experience. With seats that vibrate to large sound, Tempur-pedic chairs, and a massive screen, the environment is a fixed niche for what it is intended to do. Jordan’s IMAX doesn’t attempt to fault their quality for the sake of building more screens, or constantly changing prices. While Mr. Reddy is cautious of the growing trend, he notes that “2015 will be a very telling year, but thankfully it looks like a much better year release-wise than 2014, so they just might pull this thing off. I mean, no matter the cost, who doesn’t want to see Avengers 2 or Star Wars in theaters?” Ending with the note that films will be seen just because they are there, aside from the price, experience, or hassle. To be completely honest, I totally see myself seeing The Avengers and The Force Awakens as lavishly as I can, but will that experience even matter if it is the only choice I have?

Aside from my distaste for it at AMC, the real question is if it will really work. Ticket prices are increasing, 3D movies for blockbusters are essential nomenclature now, and that comes with a cost. Ordering online for AMC, with a 3D showing is $13.49, plus the $1 convenience fee, which leads to $14.49 per ticket. Let’s say a family of four wishes to go see a film, and due to the increased traffic of a new luxury AMC theater, they order online. For one family outing to see a 3D film in the climate, the cost of tickets alone would be $57.96. Nearly sixty dollars, just to take your family to a film. AMC’s website does not list concession prices, but if each member of the family of four gets a small popcorn and small drink, that price can easily (and quickly) be increased to $100.

Let’s look at some numbers. The AMC theater I frequent most is in Framingham, MA and is currently in an 11 million dollar luxury makeover. Half the theater is currently closed, and the new plans look to reduce seating by more than 50 percent! The original seat count, according to Susan Petroni from Framingham Patch, was 3,627 seats. With the new makeover, the resulting seat count would be 1,621 “enhanced luxury seats,” according to AMC Entertainment Senior VP of Food and Beverage, George Patterson. Seven of these new auditoriums would be dine-in theaters, with the remaining spaces being converted into luxury auditoriums with reclining seats. When speaking on the reason of this 11 million dollar makeover, AMC said it “was needed to meet the needs of the modern moviegoer.” Okay, I will agree that as the 23-year-old moviegoer I am now, I desire comfort, maybe an alcoholic drink, and good food in a movie night out, but the article also mentions that it aims to have “less lines.” As seen from experience at another AMC in Massachusetts, this was certainly not the case.

I fear this facelift will push moviegoers looking for a simple afternoon excursion into the wrong direction. Not everybody wants this experience all the time, and when theaters like AMC are to make their movie experience a mandatory lux experience, it doesn’t exactly equate. I would rather have a 100-percent luxury experience for the price, over an overpriced half-assed “lux” experience.

But where are moviegoers to go if they do not wish for all the extra fluff, price, and headache of the lux theater? Sure, there are indie theaters spread out throughout the country that are just wonderful, but can they handle what those families want? Indie theaters have a specific niche, and they fill it perfectly, but that may not extend out to sold-out shows of say The Avengers or whatever the next Twilight like film will be.

With this, I dare ask, is the traditional American movie theater experience dying?


Editorial written by Drew Caruso — (follow him on Twitter)

Drew Caruso
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