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It used to be that you'd go to the movies to...see a movie. Maybe neck. Who has time for that now, when you go to have drinks or a fine meal before an eye-popping 3-D IMAX "experience," or even see a live performance in real time as it's performed half a continent away?
Point Cinemas, for example, expects to screen more live rock concerts, and it just finished its second year of live performances by the New York Metropolitan Opera.
On Thursday, July 9, Point will offer a live presentation of a "Forever Plaid Anniversary Tribute," with an introduction by the original cast, from Los Angeles. In other cities you could already have seen live big-screen football in 3-D.
With all these extras, are we returning to the age of the lush, immersive 1920s movie palaces?
Food for the eyes - and stomach
What's driving the changes? Some of it is new technology. A lot of it is money, or - as the business types say - diversifying income streams. It's not just the pictures that move. The business model of movies constantly changes.
The motion picture industry has always had three main components: studios, distributors and exhibitors, or theaters. Competition for profit among the three, and with other media, has always led to innovation.
Historically, the lines have been blurry. Until an anti-monopoly ruling in 1948, studios often were their own distributors and exhibitors. Some exhibitors became distributors, and some distributors formed their own studios - for example, Universal. The public has generally benefited from the transition, either through change in exhibition or, as technology develops, in new filmmaking techniques.
Still, one technology that is definitely not new is food, though finding good food at theaters is. But for exhibitors, food is more than a meal; it's a way to keep all the money on the premises.
"Our location is really differentiated by the fact that it's a one-stop night or afternoon out," says Sundance Cinemas' national executive vice president of marketing, Nancy Klasky Gribler, based in Los Angeles.
Downtown, the Orpheum Theatre has offered fine dining and a bar since 1999. Its managing director, Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray, left for Madison's Sundance when Robert Redford's fledgling chain wanted to do the same in 2007. When Marcus Theatres finishes its new Eastgate Cinemas, it will also have a restaurant, a lounge and even a bowling alley.
"One thing that our company is doing quite a bit is getting into the food and beverage aspects," says Carlo Petrick, communications manager for Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres, which operates Point and Eastgate Cinemas. "It started in a theater here in the Milwaukee area called the Majestic, in Brookfield, which has one auditorium where you can eat a full meal while you're watching a movie."
The Majestic has cafes, a coffee shop, a pizza parlor and an ice cream shop. "That's something that we replicated in another theater in the Milwaukee area called the Northshore Cinema, where we have a full sit-down dining restaurant as part of the complex," says Petrick. "That's still in the plans to do something similar when we build the [new] Eastgate sometime in the future."
Food is important to exhibitors. Distributors generally take 50% of a theater's admissions revenue, but exhibitors keep 100% of concessions revenue.
In the 1930s, on average, popcorn and other concession sales totaled only 2% of theater revenues. Just selling tickets was sufficient, because studios owned their own theater chains.
In the 1950s concessions climbed to 12% and held there through the 1970s. In the 1990s concessions sales accounted for 28% of exhibitor revenues, and today they average 34%. That's why there are more and better things to eat, plus lobby arcade games and such.
"I would say that the movie is still the key component of this whole concept, but it is to create an entertainment destination," says Petrick. "It becomes really a one-stop entertainment destination where you can walk in the door and experience the movie, experience dinner. We even have at some of our locations now live music in the lobby, with a baby grand piano that someone is playing in an afternoon or evening."
Admissions down, revenues up
To combat the new medium of television, studios and exhibitors experimented in the 1950s, coming up with black-and-white 3-D, Cinerama and CinemaScope wide screen, and multichannel sound, which Disney pioneered in 1940.
Today there's a lot more technology in theaters. One reason is that only now are certain technologies finally perfected and available, like digital projection. Also, besides television, DVDs and home entertainment systems, theaters have to compete with new exhibition technologies such as the Internet and cell phones.
Even with the competition, business is pretty good, depending on whom you ask. "I think we were down, like, 5% from last year this time, but it's all about the product," says Steve Carpenter, director of marketing for Chicago-based Kerasotes Star Cinemas.
Nationally, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, 2008 was not great. Admissions were at a four-year low, at 1.363 billion patrons. This year looks better. Day to day, it all depends on the quality of releases.
"You can have the cleanest bathrooms and the nicest lobby, but if there isn't a movie someone wants to see, that's the bottom line," says Carpenter.
Some theaters compete the old-fashioned way. "We do Indian films with some local distributors," says manager John Grams, manager at Market Square Theatres, whose distributor is Landmark Theatres. The Bollywood fare has proven to be a great success for a local promoter through the exhibitor's rental program.
"They rent the auditorium and they have their group come in," says Grams. "They do all the marketing. They present the films. That's one of the things we've found has been profitable for us and them, if we can find times that are agreeable. They pay a rental fee, and they sell their own tickets and everything else for the shows."
Over at Sundance, says Klasky Gribler, "We also host a wide range of film festivals, filmmaker screenings, special events including fully catered weddings, private screenings, business meetings, etc."
To build audience and increase traffic, Star Cinemas even gives its movies away. It has a free summer series at 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, featuring films from the last year.
"It's summertime. What do families do together that doesn't cost much?" asks Carpenter. "It's just a way to have the summer be more special."
And, of course, concessions are open. "That's the bread and butter," says Carpenter. "You'd be surprised how many people eat popcorn at 9 in the morning."
Besides being friendly, Star Cinemas has one huge draw. "Probably our biggest thing is our IMAX, since we're the only one in Madison that offers an IMAX screen," says Carpenter. And even more bells and whistles are available.
"I think the studios know that they have to think of ways to get people into the theater, too," says Carpenter. As a result, the IMAX Transformers sequel has six minutes of additional scenes.
And if that's not enough, there's one final enticement: the illusion of depth. "Harry Potter comes out in July in the IMAX, and that's the only place where you can see Harry Potter in 3-D," says Carpenter. For exhibitors, offering 3-D is a no-brainer. "When people come in the door, if they're given the choice between seeing, for example, Pixar's Up in 3-D or on the traditional 35 millimeter, they pay a little extra to see the 3-D," says Carpenter. "It's definitely our biggest seller."
All these extras cost theatergoers more. So while 2008 admissions were down, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, box office grosses were at an all-time high: $9.78 billion.
Digital 3-D arrives on a hard drive, which is then installed at the theater. At Point Cinemas, a satellite downlink allows even more innovative programming.
"This is our second year of showing the Metropolitan Opera in New York," says Petrick. "That is a popular kind of alternative programming that we've been sending out to theaters."
Live 2-D programming like the opera events exposes an existing audience to performances they might not otherwise choose. "And then there are people who might not otherwise come to a theater," says Petrick. "They're coming to our facilities sometimes for the first time in years. I think many people enjoy the experience and then come back to enjoy the movies at our locations."
The opera presentations are distributed by NCM Fathom, based in Centennial, Colo., a division of National CineMedia. Ballet is under consideration for the future. Football in 3-D was an experiment that didn't work out too well; live 3-D is a logistical nightmare. Past live screenings in cities around the country have included Kenny Chesney, Warren Buffett, Dr. Laura and drum corps. Needless to say, the potential menu of live offerings is exceptionally varied.
"Some examples of the things we've done, which you'll similarly see coming in the future, are concert events," says Petrick. "Last year we did a live Garth Brooks concert. We've presented Glenn Beck. We've done several live-on-tape events with Iron Maiden.
"So there's plenty of alternative content out there that hasn't been shown in movie theaters that would help us to attract new people, or expose new people to performances that are available in New York, or if you went to a live concert somewhere. The only place you can get this content is in one of our theaters, or one of the nationwide networks showing the opera, for example, or by going to the Metropolitan Opera and viewing the performance live."
If this is a new age of movie palaces, some things never change. In the 1920s, Madisonians went into the Capitol Theater or the Orpheum and sang along to a homely bouncing ball as the pipe organ played.
Similarly, Point's upcoming Forever Plaid concert will conclude with a bouncing ball sing-along.
And will new Marcus theaters have pipe organs?
"I wish there were," says Petrick, "but no."