Steve Buck loves the nightlife.
A gentleman in his mid-50s, he frequents popular attractions, ranging from the Power & Light District to Pinstripes Bowling in PrairieFire.
But every now and then, Steve skips the party scene and heads to AMC Studio 30 with IMAX and Dine-in Theatres in Olathe, or his personal favorite, AMC Town Center 20 in Leawood. Both theaters allow him to unwind from a hard day’s work.
“AMC always makes us feel right at home with its friendly, professional staff, user friendly concession and beverages.”
With a glass of cold beer in hand, Steve sinks into the premium, plush comfort of a reclining chair, immersing himself in the ultimate theater experience.
“To the best reclining seats and the best sound system in the city. Compared to other theaters in the city, AMC makes be feel spoiled.”
And that’s what movie theaters are trying to accomplish.
New and refurbished movie theaters are sprouting up across the metropolitan area, introducing new forms of entertainment in the hopes of getting the struggling industry back on its feet.
To entice homebodies to leave behind Netflix shows on their small screens, theaters are offering a first-class experience with dine-in movies, cocktail bars, special events and luxury seating.
Earlier this year, Screenland Crossroads, a boutique movie theater complete with a Tapcade bar, restaurant and arcade, opened its doors in Kansas City. Standees — The Entertaining Eatery, a theater complete with a full-service restaurant on site, opened for business in Prairie Village in 2013.
The cutting-edge Legends 14 Theatre at Village West opened a decade ago with a VIP balcony with food and bar service and now serves beer and wine at the concession stand.
Existing theaters are also joining the transformation. A sampling: AMC Theatres has added renovations to its Leawood, Ward Parkway and BarryWoods locations, and B&B Theatres, which acquired 15 locations nationwide from Dickinson Theatres in October, is also mulling renovation plans.
Theater owners are sitting on the edge of their seats, anxious to see whether the new renovations and business models will reel in customers and boost attendance rates, which have been struggling for years.
In 2014, the box office dipped to an estimated $10.3 billion, which was about 5 percent lower than 2013. In addition, the Memorial Day weekend box office dropped by 28 percent in 2014 to $227 million from $316 million in 2013.
But things could be looking up for the industry. According to Box Office Mojo, a website that tracks box office numbers and statistics, for 2015 box office revenues are $907 million to date, an increase over last year of 5.9 percent.
And theater owners are optimistic about the year ahead.
“2015 is set to be one of the largest box offices of the last 10 years,” said Bobbie Bagby Ford, vice president of marketing for B&B Theatres. “We are anticipating it to be just a huge, huge year.”
Jack Oberleitner of Oberleitner Associates Cinema Consultants said multiplexes are trying to lure audiences by offering deluxe auditoriums equipped with super plush seating and quality service.
“All the way up to full meals with cocktails, beer and wine service. … It seems like the trend is that a lot of people are willing to pay a premium to attend movies in this kind of luxurious surroundings,” he said.
Movie theaters are even incorporating live entertainment events to attract customers.
“A theater in New York just opened where all the seats are hot tubs,” Oberleitner said. “The funny thing is, it’s very successful.”
Heading to the movies has been a cherished American pastime for decades. Even during the Great Depression, Oberleitner said there was an influx in theater attendance.
It’s a form of escapism. And that’s what the silver screen is about.
But these days, movies theaters are competing with high-tech electronics, ranging from Netflix to iTunes. And the convenience of opening a tablet — or smartphone — and watching a movie can be too tempting to withstand.
Art historian Rolf Achilles, author of “American Movie Palaces,” said watching movies through iPhones, computers or television is not the same experience as the that one cinemas are striving to provide.
“It’s about the experience, and (the Internet) is not an experience,” he said. “The movies are fabulous. They give you three dimensions. They give you all sorts of fantasy.”
But for a growing segment of the population, it’s hard to compete with the convenience of a tablet or movie rental services like Netflix.
And so local theaters are doing what they can to enhance the experience by offering special events or adding dine-in theaters, bars and deluxe seating.
Established in Kansas City in the 1920s by Stanley Durwood, AMC Theatres offered the first-ever multiplex. Its popularity has grown exponentially since its premiere, serving an average of 200 million guests annually.
As of the end of February, the theater chain has renovated 53 out of 346 theaters, including the AMC Town Center 20 in Leawood and the AMC Ward Parkway 14 in Kansas City.
Although the theater chain reported a slight drop in total revenues for the fourth quarter of 2014, earning $712.2 million compared with $713.0 million for 2013’s fourth quarter, officials said those theaters that have been renovated have seen climbing numbers. Of the 53 theaters that received new seats, the chain saw a 13.8 percent increase in admissions revenues per screen compared with a year ago.
Ultra-plush seating, a sports bar, hot meals and a Coca-Cola Freestyle Drink Machine were added to the theater in Leawood, while the Ward Parkway location received new plush reclining seats, a sports bar, and expanded food and beverage options. In the Northland, AMC BarryWoods 24 now has a sports bar, an upgraded food and beverage area, and AMC Prime, a new movie-watching experience complete with a premium large format screen and seats with transducers in them that shake during every explosion or laser beam.
AMC Prime has been incredibly popular, said Ryan Noonan, director of public relations.
“Based on guest feedback, it’s the most popular experience we offer at AMC,” he said.
Although the renovations may actually reduce seating capacity, Noonan says they’ve resulted in growing attendance numbers.
“When we do a renovation at a Town Center or at a Ward Parkway, we lose seating capacity, so we take more seats out of the building than go back in. But despite having fewer seats, we see more people coming to the theater and sitting in those seats,” he said.
In Olathe, AMC Studio 30 contains a lounge area and cocktail bar as well as two dine-in theater experiences, the Fork & Screen and Cinema Suites.
Overland Park resident Goeff O’Brien attends the movies whenever he can.
“Sometimes you need to get out of the house. ... Sometimes I’d prefer stay at home in my PJs rather than dress up and go out, but people need to do that on occasion, and movies are the perfect opportunity,” O’Brien said.
Founded by Peter Brown, the former CEO of AMC Theatres, Standees was born through his collaboration with ex-AMC employees.
Located in the Village Shopping Center in Prairie Village, the eatery houses three 31-foot-tall theaters, and each seats an average of 80 people.
The smaller size helps create a more “immersive” experience, Justin Scott, who recently left his marketing position, has said.
The hotel-styled lobby leads into the dining area, an atmosphere decorated with neutral hues and chic architecture.
The elongated bar is the centerpiece of the entertaining eatery, featuring 15 80-inch screens that play everything from trailers and nature scenes to regular channels, but are customizable for private gatherings.
“You can certainly just come in here and see a movie and leave,” Scott said. “You can come in for dinner and leave, but really it’s designed for both.”
The restaurant and theaters are both soundproof to enhance the customer experience.
“The last thing you want to hear in a movie is clinking glasses in a restaurant, and the last thing you want with a nice dinner with your spouse or significant other is hearing rumbling from a car bomb in a movie or something,” Scott said.
Cinetopia is another up-and-coming theater option for movie-goers that opened last year. It is a free-range, farm-to-table establishment located in PrairieFire in Overland Park that offers viewers three theater styles to watch a movie. Vinotopia, an award-winning Wine Bar, Wine Cellar, lounge area and restaurant, is located on the second floor.
The theme was created by owner Rudyard Coltman, who runs a chain of movie theaters in Washington state and Oregon.
Cinetopia was the first all-digital, super high-definition theater in the world for multiplex back in 2005. It was also the first to transition to Dolby 3D as well as 4K projection, which is essentially Blu-Ray times four.
The multiplex is considered the most high-tech theater in the world. It has 220 screens — three GXL screens, 10 in the living room, four parlors and the rest are all “animated” posters. All of these immersive backgrounds are operated by a $250,000 software package.
There are three ways to watch a movie in Cinetopia: the GXL, the living room and the parlor.
Cinetopia contains three GXL theaters, coliseum-style seating. The screens are four-stories high, each with a 4K projection, and the seats are triple-stuffed leather. The aisles have so much legroom one can do cartwheels to their seat, and the room has a 24-inch rise. It cost a million dollars extra to implement three of them, Cinetopia officials said.
The sound system, Dolby Atmos, is so flawless one could differentiate between raindrops. Most people experience movie theater’s common five-channel system, meaning sound will travel in five different places throughout the theater like surround sound. Dolby Atmos, on the other hand, is a 128-channel sound system.
Last but not least there is the parlor, which is the most “fanciful” experience and the highest-selling ticket, according to owner Coltman.
The small room is designed right out of a million-dollar home entertainment magazine, lavished with couches topped with pillows and ottomans for a family of three. The room also has a fireplace, bookshelf and windows looking out into a scenic image that emulates the movie.
“This evolution is bringing more people into the dream and more into ... the amusement-park feel of movies where you get to actually live and get immersed into it,” Coltman said. “Kind of Disney-esque.”
“I heard a customer come up and say, ‘I feel like I’m out of town!’” said Terry Cannady, marketing manager.
The theater allows private events, ranging from family parties to corporate events in the room. Dine-in services are also provided.
Cinetopia will continue adding upgrades to keep up with consumer demands. Coltman is confident movie theaters will always play an integral part to people’s lives.
“It’s that kind of special place, so that thrives no matter what,” he said. “I think people want to be wowed with the right technology and the right experience.”
But not all theater chains think reclining seats are the way to movie-goers’ hearts. Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet in Kansas City actually took the reclining seats out of their theaters after buying the site from AMC.
Instead, it opted to attract customers through a movie-watching experience unlike any other. In addition to new releases, the six-screen dine-in theater regularly hosts special themed-movie dinners, interactive sing-alongs and showings of cult movie classics, even occasionally bringing in actors from the film all with the goal of creating hard-core movie fans.
“At the end of the day I always feel like we are just trying to save cinema and rejuvenate movie watchers and have them realize why they need to go back to the movies to watch something,” said Ryan Davis, creative manager at Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet.
Davis is in charge of developing the theater’s special events and draws his ideas from his own love of movies as well as suggestions from the customers themselves. The special events run the gamut from cartoon cereal parties for kids to a showing of the cult classic “The Princess Bride,” where attendees eat a movie-themed meal while watching the show.
This month, for instance, Alamo has partnered with Boulevard Brewery to debut a new St. Patrick’s Day-inspired beer while watching the movie “Leprechaun.”
“With our repertory stuff, we always go all out and add something special to help you remember why you fell in love with that movie,” Davis said.
Although many of the theater’s special events are interactive quote-alongs or sing-alongs, the theater is also known for its strict no-talking or -texting rule during showings of new releases.
The combination of special events and screenings of new releases appears to be a successful mix for the theater.
“The average movie goer that goes to a regular movie theater goes once every maybe two months, and then the average Alamo movie-goer goes once a month,” Davis said.
Kansas City resident Seth Wiseman’s visits are even more frequent, typically averaging about one movie a week at the theater.
“Even with as good as HD television is now, there really is no replacement for a theater setting,” he says. “That’s really how films were designed to be seen.”
As movie theaters continue to upgrade sound systems, add customer-friendly amenities and offer more diverse dining options, ticket prices also continue to rise. However, some theater chains have worked to make sure the movie-going experience doesn’t break the bank.
The Cinemark theater chain, which has locations in Merriam and on the Country Club Plaza, prides itself on customer service and providing family-friendly pricing structures. The Plaza location has a VIP room with reclining seats and a bar outside the room. They also pride themselves on good pricing.
“They typically have a $4.40 or $6.40 ticket seven days a week, so they are very value-priced,” said Frank Gonzales, marketing manager for Cinemark.
Making sure the movies are accessible for everyone is also a point of pride for B&B theaters. The family-owned movie chain, which is based in Liberty, has 51 locations nationwide, including nine theaters in the Kansas City area.
“The reality is that times are tough sometimes, and we want to make sure that families particularly can get out and come to the movies,” said Bobbie Bagby Ford, vice president of marketing.
Ideally, Ford said, B&B Theatres hopes to be a mix of modern theater conveniences and affordable pricing options. The chain is already planning to replace its flagship theater in Liberty in 2016, and officials plan to consider other renovations and updates, including new food options in other Kansas City area theaters as well, Ford said.
“I think that’s the wave of the future,” Ford said. “At the same time, I think in those markets we have to make sure that we are really paying attention and not oversaturating a market with that so that there is still the option for families that need that, a family-affordable night out. So I think we will take it location by location and case by case.”
Regardless of the amenities they offer or special events they host, theater owners think going to the movies will continue to be a favorite pastime.
“My favorite quote from my grandfather is that everyone still has a kitchen table, but they still go out to dinner — and I think that’s true about going to the movies, in that you know no matter what you still need to get out of the house, you still need to get out to the movies,” Ford said. “There’s something about laughing and crying with a group of strangers. Comedy is just not the same at home, and also suspense is not the same at home.
“I am not worried about the future, because it’s looking bright.”
Movie theater ticket prices
Ticket pricing is nearly as diverse as viewing options. Here is a small sampling of prices for an adult ticket on Saturday night:
▪ B&B Overland Park 16: $9.
▪ Cinetopia: GXL or Living Room ticket: $13.50; Movie Parlor: $17.50.
▪ Standees: $9.
▪ AMC Leawood Town Center 20: Imax, $14.80; Prime, $14.80; Regular, $10.30.