When we think of eating at the movies, we tend to think of the theaters of our childhood: the intoxicating smell of buttered popcorn emanating from behind the snack counter, the thrill of drinking sodas the size of our faces as we’re shrouded in darkness, popping Good & Plenty candies or nachos into our mouths, eyes glued to the screen.
But that’s the problem, say movie-industry analysts. The moviegoing generation has grown up, and until recently theaters hadn’t grown up with them.
In 2001, the revenue of movie houses started to drop, according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s theatrical marketing statistics. Experts can’t seem to agree why, though certain factors are cited as possible reasons. The bad economy may have forced parents to save money on babysitters and dinner by ordering pizza and renting a DVD. Redbox, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, BluRay and the advancement of good, affordable sound and television equipment made it possible to turn your living room into a more comfortable, less intrusive entertainment experience. Or maybe when recession-burdened moviegoers decided to pinch pennies and go out, they wanted to spend their money on more extravagant experiences.
Whatever the reason, in reaction to the loss of revenue, movie houses had to take a new direction and create a niche experience that had the comforts of home but couldn’t be found in the living room. The strategy worked. For the first time since the downturn, the movie-theater industry made money in 2010, and the rapid expansion of in-theater dining and drinking experiences has been credited in part for the upward trend.
That expansion just recently made its way to Southwest Michigan. Portage’s Celebration! Cinema opened Oscar’s Bistro in October, offering an in-house restaurant dining option that allows patrons to buy beer, wine, appetizers and meals and either eat them in the Bistro or bring them into the theater. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which opened a month later in downtown Kalamazoo, became the first movie theater in the area to serve dinner directly to patrons seated in the theaters. It also has seating near the box office for those who want to dine before or after a movie.
Both movie houses offer craft beer and restaurant-quality food like sliders, sweet-potato fries and fried pickles, but Celebration! also offers D-BOX seating — seats with special simulators that move you with the action of the movie. Alamo enacts a strict no-talking and no-texting policy and requires all patrons under 18 to be accompanied by an adult for a maximum movie-friendly atmosphere.
James Sanford, creative manager at Alamo Drafthouse and former local movie critic, says Kalamazoo is a perfect place for a dining cinema because of its love of the arts.
The company that owns the theater is based in Austin, Texas, and has nine other locations in the U.S. “A large part of coming here had to do with a sense that Kalamazoo loves movies, and certainly the theater,” Sanford says. “We also saw the explosion of microbreweries in the area, three local colleges and an enormous movie theater left vacant right in the middle of downtown. It was really a perfect fit.”
Just after opening, Alamo already felt at home here, Sanford says. Patrons commented on how different the experience was. It wasn’t just the chance to have new foods at a theater that wowed them, Sanford says. It was that Alamo seemed to bring a theater into a restaurant.
Patrons at Celebration! seem pleased with their new options too. Steve VanWagoner, vice president for marketing and relations at Celebration!, says Oscar’s Bistro has been incredibly successful, and the amped-up, all-inclusive movie experience is providing exactly what patrons have been asking for all along — more.
“It’s going really well so far,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people eating in the Bistro yet, which we’d like to see, but there are lots of people taking food into the movie.”
VanWagoner thinks the in-theater dining trend is a combination of the industry evolving and a response to customer demand to have new experiences at the movies.
“We believe that if you don’t stay fresh and relevant, people will find another way to spend their money,” he says. “We’ve been in business over 69 years, and you can follow the evolution through film, stadium seating, digital movie platforms, 3-D, IMAX, D-BOX seat, motion simulator experience. And now it’s evolving the food and beverage experience. It seems to be just a natural evolution.”
To make the customer’s experience more exciting and enjoyable, Alamo keeps its eye on trends among its audiences, Sanford says.
“It’s always fun to see what different audiences like to eat and drink,” he says. “We sold a lot of milkshakes during ‘Catching Fire,’ for example. I don’t know why, but people love to drink milkshakes while watching Katniss Everdeen swing from trees.”
Celebration! keeps up with the buy-local trend as it uses locally sourced foods in its dishes, including maple syrup from Paw Paw in its sauces.
“We are a local business,” VanWagoner says. “We were born and raised right here in Grand Rapids so a number of items on the menu at Oscar’s Bistro are Michigan-grown or locally made products. We always want to add some local love.”