Movie theaters get creative to reel you in

Local theaters are filling seats with niche events that transcend weekly blockbusters.

02/07/2013 8:09 PM

05/16/2014 9:02 PM

Where can you go to see a rock concert, opera performance, comedy roast, video game tournament, karaoke and pyrotechnics?

A Kansas City movie theater.

Actually, quite a few of them.

Within the past year, many area theaters have transformed from places that merely feature first-run blockbusters to multipurpose venues that freely explore all manner of creative whims.

“The business of showing non-first-run content has really taken off,” says Dan Diamond, senior VP of business development for NCM Fathom Events.

“Creating nontheatrical events in movie theaters is a way to really bring fans together — like-minded fans — to see things and participate in things they can’t do anywhere else. In this age of massive social media communities, there are not a lot of places for these communities to gather.”

Diamond’s Colorado-based company partners with five KC movie theaters: AMC Town Center, AMC Olathe Studio 30, Cinemark Merriam, Cinemark Palace at the Plaza and Regal Kansas City 18. It specializes in offering exclusive live programming streamed to theaters. This is typified by the popular series “The Met,” an event coordinated with up to 700 theaters that shows live performances from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

But their approach is hardly limited to high-brow fare.

“We’ve been able to be very entrepreneurial and local with our events. We’ve done rock concerts where we had about 25 minutes with Bon Jovi, texting and tweeting with people onscreen before a concert,” Diamond says. “We also do a program called Drum Corps International that is the semifinals of the drum and bugle corps competition. A lot of people have asked, ‘How big is the audience for that?’ As we were growing the network, fans of DCI would drive across states to find movie theaters that had this program.”

Yet these may seem tame compared to the shenanigans Alamo Drafthouse offers patrons on a weekly basis. The Austin, Texas-based company opened its first KC venue at 14th and Main last summer.

“When you look at box-office sales, it’s all about Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” says Ryan Davis, creative manager at the Alamo Drafthouse.

“Those are the days most movie theaters are aiming to get you in. Then it just tapers off. We do our special events so that everything is ‘Rocky Horror’ the rest of the time. It’s giving you something special to do while you’re waiting for that next round of new movies.”

Special indeed. Alamo indulges in a cavalcade of activities to enhance, celebrate or poke fun at the moviegoing experience. For example, its Tough Guy Cinema series recently added a bit of bling to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1987 adventure “Predator.”

“That event uses live explosions, so every time there’s an explosion onscreen, we use theater-grade pyrotechnics. We make it a legitimate 3-D experience,” Davis says.

Alamo also recently presented “Team America: World Police Quote-Along,” an interactive screening of the racy puppet comedy.

“It’s a big patriotic blast with streamers and glow sticks, red and white balloons. Everybody sings along with the songs. We also call it a ‘Curse-Along’ because that movie is filled with profanity,” he says.

On Sunday, Alamo delivers the “Moulin Rouge Sing-Along,” which encourages audience members to add their own vocals to Baz Luhrmann’s dizzying 2001 musical.

And every Monday is “The Big Lebowski Quote-Along,” in which audiences are invited to partake in the Coen brothers’ stoner detective flick while provided with baseball bats, white underwear and a giant-sized bowling game onstage. The movie’s best lines are subtitled, karaoke-style.

Jason Chaffee, the new owner of Screenland Crossroads, reverse-engineered his introduction of unusual content into a theater setting.

“My initial idea was to do a vintage arcade,” Chaffee says. “But we decided to merge it with an independent or cult movie house. The combination of the two elements really complement each other.”

Screenland converted its former lobby annex into an arcade that features 40 classic titles such as “Frogger,” “Paperboy,” “Donkey Kong,” “Tron” and “Spy Hunter.” No quarters are required. The venue charges a stay-and-play flat rate of $5.

“Most of these machines customers haven’t seen in 20 years, and it really takes them back,” says Chaffee, whose preferred game is “Galaga.” “It’s just another form of entertainment. We’ve gotten a lot of customers who come in just to do that.”

He’s also finding ways to incorporate music into the mix. In March, he’s planning to have a group of regular customers who play in a Ramones tribute band perform before a screening of the punk act’s signature flick, “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.”

Chaffee also launched a movie-roasting team called Cheap Shots. He’s employing 10 writers to create humorous commentary to lambaste a suspect movie a la “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” He hopes to execute two roasts a month. The first victim in January was “The Craft,” the 1996 teen witch horror effort starring Neve Campbell and Fairuza Balk.

“I’ve now seen that movie more times than I need to,” Chaffee admits.

“It’s all complementary entertainment,” he adds. “We still want to get new stuff out there, but we don’t need to play in AMC’s sandbox. We’re not a multiplex. We don’t need ‘The Hobbit.’ Having 150 seats gives us more flexibility for more niche, obscure stuff.”

But even AMC is expanding its approach to theatrical content. The Kansas City-based theatrical chain (the nation’s second-largest) is embracing special events as a way to bolster its upcoming blockbusters.

As part of its nationwide AMC Stubs program, the chain set up a live Q with filmmaker Judd Apatow for “This Is 40,” as well as one with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis for “Lincoln,” before screenings of both pictures. Last spring, AMC presented a superhero marathon of Marvel Comics movies leading in to the midnight release of “The Avengers,” then did a similar block with “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“It was insanely popular,” says Ryan Noonan, public relations director for AMC Theatres.

“The demand we saw for the ‘Avengers’ and ‘Dark Knight’ marathons shows us that people want to come out and have an event at the movies. Instead of just seeing the midnight opening, it can become a daylong event where you really get immersed in the environment.”

Are gimmicks really necessary for movies poised to earn more than $400 million?

“I don’t know that it’s a gimmick as much as it’s responding to a demand,” Noonan says. “There’s a great demand out there that goes above and beyond watching a first-run feature.”

On Wednesday, AMC theaters will show all Bruce Willis’ John McClane films for a “Die Hard” marathon to prepare for the release of “A Good Day to Die Hard” on Feb. 14.

At the very least, area multiplexes are starting to revel in cinematic history instead of relying on the latest “Transformers” sequel to get butts in the door.

“ ‘White Christmas’ was our biggest Retro Night to date, but we’ve also had large crowds for ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future,’ ” says Bobbie Bagby, vice president of marketing with B Theatres. “We try to pick a wide variety of movies so that everyone can enjoy their favorite ‘classic.’ ”

Her company owns four Missouri-based theaters, including the Marketplace 8 in Grain Valley and the Liberty Cinema 12. It recently introduced Retro Night as a way to bring timeless movies to modern audiences. B often weaves ’80s costume contests and school choir/band performances into family-friendly screenings.

“At the heart of these events, we are providing our customers with the opportunity to see their favorite movies how they were meant to be seen, on the big screen,” says Bagby, whose great grandfather started the company in 1924.

Upcoming films include “E.T.,” “Grease,” “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

The Cinemark chain is integrating the retro tactic as well. Its Cinemark Merriam and Palace on the Plaza locations will screen “To Catch a Thief,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” over the next few weeks.

But this approach hasn’t been limited to entertainment-oriented events. Some inclusions have courted political or social significance.

“In 2008 there was a sleepy little documentary released called ‘I.O.U.S.A’ about the impending economic crisis,” Fathom’s Diamond recalls. “A gentleman named Dave Walker, who was the former comptroller-general in the United States Treasury under the Bush administration, had literally set out in a van going city to city trying to rally chambers of commerce about the future economic issues.”

NCM Fathom found a way to get the message out in a single burst.

“What would traditionally be done in a movie theater for a documentary is, it would get a limited run in certain markets. What we did was turn it into a one-night event screening with a live panel from Omaha that featured Warren Buffett, Walker ... and others who took questions from across the country,” Diamond says.

Of course, not all special programming works wonders for the theaters involved. Alamo’s Davis says that a recent holiday-themed promotion bombed.

“I really thought people were going to love our throwback horror films,” he says. “ ‘American Psycho’ went really well for us, but ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ didn’t. I don’t think people were ready to watch Santa Claus murder a family in 35mm so close to the Christmas holiday.”

The Alamo features a special event every day of the week except Friday. It puts pressure on the staff to reinvent ways to show movies. But then again, it’s a company that employs a creative manager.

“You can really overthink yourself and put way too much into an event,” Davis says. “You don’t want to add so much special stuff that people get overwhelmed.”

And some theaters aren’t interested in expanded concepts.

“Really, we play movies for now,” says Brian Mossman, vice president of the Fine Arts Theatres. “I have inquired about other events like operas and plays, but there are so many restrictions and clearances that make it difficult. I am open to try other things, but it would have to be the right fit for my customers.”

Considering all the distractions available to modern audiences — when even a cellphone can display a movie — it’s impressive enough that theaters are finding ways to remain relevant.

“When I was a kid, we would go to theaters and make a night of it. It was a big deal,” Diamond recalls.

“For new communities of fans to go to a theater, see things on the big screen and interact with them is a great opportunity for the theaters. It’s not a gimmick; it’s more an added value for fans. It’s an opportunity to use the theaters for what they really were many years ago: local community event centers.”

Beyond blockbusters: upcoming movie events

This is just a small sampling of events and special screenings at local theaters. For more, see your favorite theater’s website.

Alamo Mainstreet

• Alamo Kids’ Camp showing of “How to Train Your Dragon.”

10:30 a.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

• 

“Moulin Rouge” Quote- and Sing-Along.

7 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Feb. 13

• “The Big Lebowski” Quote-Along

. 8 p.m. Monday

• “The Late Show: Night of the Creeps,”

10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Feb. 14

• “Horror Remix: Love,”

9:25 p.m. Feb. 13

• “Night Warning,”

10 p.m. Feb. 13

• “It Happened One Night,”

7 p.m. Feb. 14

For more, go to

Drafthouse.com

.

B THEATRES

Retro Night. “Grease” Sing-Along at 7 p.m. Thursday and “Casablanca” at 7 p.m. Feb. 14. For locations, tickets and more upcoming events, see BBTheatres.com

.

SCREENLAND CROSSROADS

Generation: VG Tournamen t

. A video game tournament in three rounds, featuring “Burgertime,” “Hydro Thunder” and “Need for Speed: Most Wanted.” 8 p.m. Friday

Upcoming special screenings:

• 

“Strange Brew,”

7, 9 and 11 p.m. Friday-Sunday

• “UHF,”

10 p.m. Friday, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

• “Amelie,”

7 p.m. Monday-Feb. 14

• “My Bloody Valentine,”

10 p.m. Monday-Feb. 14

For more, go to

Screenland.com

.

SCREENLAND ARMOUR

Comedian

Judah Friedlander

performs at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Upcoming special screenings:

• “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,”

9 p.m. Friday

• “Major League,”

4 p.m. Sunday

• “Rushmore,”

7 p.m. Monday

• “Casablanca,”

7 p.m. Feb. 14

• “When Harry Met Sally,”

9 p.m. Feb. 14

• A Screenland movie roast of “Valentine’s Day,”

9 p.m. Feb. 15

For more events, see

Screenland.com

.

AMC THEATERS

• “A Very Die Hard Valentine’s Day Marathon.”

Starting at noon Feb. 13 the AMC BarryWoods, Independence and Town Center theaters will show the first four Bruce Willis “Die Hard” movies, followed by the 10 p.m. premiere of “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Tickets are $35.

• 

Best Picture Showcase

. See all the Oscar nominees over two weekends. “Amour,” “Les Miserables,” “Argo” and “Django Unchained” on Feb. 16. “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty” on Feb. 23. Theaters include Barrywoods, Independence, Town Center and Ward Parkway.

For more, go to

AMCTheatres.com

.

CINEMARK THEATERS

• “Die Hard Marathon,”

starting at 12:15 Feb. 13 at Cinemark Merriam.

• “Oscar Marathon.”

See all nine best picture nominees over two weekends. “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Amour,” “Life of Pi,” “Les Miserables” and “Lincoln” on Feb. 16. “Argo,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” on Feb. 23. Purchase a ticket for both days for $50.

More info and events at

Cinemark.com

.

UPCOMING FATHOM EVENTS

• “Rigoletto,” Verdi’s tragic opera, directed by Michael Mayer and set in 1960s Las Vegas. Showing Feb. 16 at Cinemark Merriam, Town Center 20, the Palace. Tickets are $15-$22. More information and more events at FathomEvents.com.

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