March 8, 2009 in Business

Upscale movie theaters serve up much more than the latest flicks

Spots offer dinner and drinks in a trendy atmosphere
Doug Dobbins Correspondent
 
Photo by Doug Dobbins photo

The lobby of the Redmond Gold Class Theater has comfortable seating with the ticket desk and bar in the background. Photo by Doug Dobbins
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

With the advent of the DVD, and now Blu-ray with a large flat-screen TV, you can have a great movie-viewing experience at home.

To keep customers coming back, theaters have started to change what the movie-going experience is all about.

Two trends in movie houses – the pamper-the-patron approach and the digital 3-D experience – can be found as near as Seattle, and they offer a glimpse of what may be the next hot thing for communities like Spokane.

In Redmond, Wash., the recently opened Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas brings luxury, comfort and service back to the movie house. Patrons pay a premium for tickets but are pampered with food, drink and extra-comfy recliners for the show.

Village Roadshow has operated Gold Class Cinemas for more than 12 years in Australia, where it’s based. The seven-screen Redmond Town Center location is the second such theater in the U.S., with the other in Chicago.

Patrons buy their tickets at a hotel concierge-like desk, rather than a box office, or online, and are assigned seats. Ticket prices are $22 for a matinee, $27 for a weekday evening and $32 on the weekend. Before the show, customers can sit at tables in the lobby or bar, both sporting 1950s-era décor with dark orange and brown colors and lighting reminiscent of an old-school steakhouse.

Food and drink is where Gold Class earns its name. The menu, which changes seasonally and has a strong local flair, is a far cry from hot dog and nachos. It features appetizers such as Maine lobster rolls ($18) and sushi ($18). Entrees include Cuban sandwiches ($11), duck tacos ($15) and Kobe beef burgers ($17).

The bar is stocked with microbrews and fine wines. You can buy a bottle of Dom Perignon for extra-special occasions. Mr. Bond could have a martini “shaken, not stirred” with his latest screening.

“We make our comfort food menu to be eaten in the dark,” said Rob Goldberg, chief operating officer of the chain. “Sauces are made thicker to help avoid dripping. Almost all of the menu can be eaten with your hands, to keep from hearing the noise of utensils during the film.”

And yes, you can still get popcorn.

Now it’s movie time. The theater has at most 40 seats in a space that would hold up to 140 in a conventional theater. Those seats are akin to La-Z-Boys, cushy and comfortable. You can ask for a blanket as you recline. The chairs are placed in pairs with shared tables between, with no more than four in a row. Food and drink can be served from the aisle without blocking anyone’s view.

All seven theaters have Dolby 5.1 sound, and some can project digitally.

Gold Class has a membership program and an e-mail newsletter, plus monthly events such as Oscar and holiday parties. The theater can also be rented for parties and meetings – anything from a PowerPoint presentation to a private screening.

Reality in 3-D

At the south end of Puget Sound, Gig Harbor’s Galaxy Theater Uptown is “the most modern on the West coast,” claims its CEO, Frank Rimkus.

While it looks like the standard 10-screen multiplex, it has undergone a digital makeover. Say goodbye to film; the theater shows movies digitally in DLP Cinema, in 2-D and 3-D.

“If you are not a techie, all you need to know about DLP and digital projection is the first and last view are just as sharp and look much better than 35mm ever has,” said lead manager and former Spokane resident Adrienne Ingham.

The new 3-D doesn’t use your ’50s-era red-and-blue glasses. These look more like sunglasses and easily fit over most regular glasses. The lenses polarize to produce the 3-D effect.

What really makes the theater stand out is its ability to show live events in 3-D, thanks to its Cinedigm Digital Cinema equipment. On Valentine’s Day, the NBA All-Star Saturday was shown in more than 85 theaters and 150 screens in North America. While you could have watched the slam dunk contest at home on TNT, watching the broadcast at the Galaxy Theater Uptown was real enough to make one want to jump up and grab the rebounds. According to Rimkus, only about one in 10 U.S. theaters project digitally now, ever fewer have 3-D capability. “The list grows even smaller for live 3-D events,” he said.

The next closest theater to Spokane showing 3D live events is in Missoula.

In addition to live sports, the technology opens the door to live concerts or a live question-and-answer session with a director before a film is shown, Rimkus said.

Galaxy has done an uplink to the International Space Station for a live, 25-minute Q-and-A between middle school students and Expedition 18 astronauts Mike Fincke and Sandra Magnus.

In response to changes in programming and customer demands, the theater business is becoming more an event business. Showing movies soon will not be enough, as new technology leads to new forms of entertainment.


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