Child’s Play: Cinépolis Junior concept caters to the needs of moviegoing parents and kids

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Cinemas Features

It’s Thursday afternoon in Cinépolis Vista, a 15-plex about 40 miles north of San Diego, Calif., and Frank Soto, general manager, is up in the balcony over the main lobby, reminiscing.

“In my youth,” he remembers, “I used to go to the drive-in with my dad. They had jungle gym equipment in the front, close to the screen. It was a treat going to the drive-in, but it was an ‘extra treat’ knowing I’d get to play on that equipment until the lights came down and I had to run back to the car and watch the movie. That’s what ‘Cinépolis Junior’ reminds me of; it brings back fond memories.”

“CinépolisJunior” is the company’s latest concept to create a differentiated experience—a movie space uniquely designed for families with children. “This is the U.S.’s first kids-friendly cinema auditorium,” explains Natasha Lum, regional sales and special events manager at Cinépolis USA. “It’s a place where parents can bring their kids not just to watch a movie, but to let off steam prior to the movie—and still get the full entertainment experience for the whole family.”

Adrian Mijares Elizondo, CEO of Cinépolis USA, provides background. “The idea started in our corporate office, where our design team came up with the concept,” he says. “We tried it out in Mexico and had great success. We introduced it in Costa Rica, in Spain and in Guatemala. It worked well everywhere, so we thought it was good timing to try it out here in the U.S.”

For Mijares, it was more than just a good business decision; with three young children, he appreciates this as a dad.   

“Having small kids,” he says, “it’s not easy to take them to a theatre. My wife and I take turns doing a popcorn run or trying to get one of the kids to stay seated so the other one can keep enjoying the movie. When kids are around three to five years old, parents always buy the tickets knowing that they might not make it through the whole movie.”

Soto can relate to that. His kids are older now, but “I’ve been in this industry for twenty-five years and there were times when we took our young children to the theatre I was managing and my wife and I had to watch the movie from the projection booth because our kids were loud and disruptive.”

“When it comes to entertaining their children—especially the smaller children—parents worry that they’ll be restless if they have to sit for a period of time,” Lum adds. “So, sometimes they go down to a local playground first—to let the kids expend some energy. Then they have to get them back in the car, drive to the theatre, get them seated and settled down and ready for a different experience. Now, they can do it all in one place.”

Mijares shares a corporate perspective. “We consider our brand to be the high-value option to movie audiences,” he says. “In thirteen countries worldwide Cinépolis has many different offerings, but in the U.S. we’re focusing more on our higher-end concepts. Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas offer a differentiated experience for adults. Cinépolis 4DX adds excitement to the movie experience for younger adults and teenagers. Now with Cinépolis Junior, we’re able to make going to the movies more of a enjoyable event for little ones and their families.”

The company has two Cinépolis Juniorauditoriums in the U.S.; the other is in Cinépolis Pico Rivera in Los Angeles. Both opened in March after months of reconstruction.

“We removed all the seats—and even the concrete—because we were putting in new levels,” Soto explains. “We installed a new 40-foot silver screen with a new RealD system to show 3D. The JBL speakers are new; so are the seats, the carpet and the wall soundproofing. We’re using a Dolby sound system and a Christie Series 2 digital projector.”

What parents and kids see is an auditorium that looks fun, inspired and inviting. The entrance is framed in lighted blocks of primary colors; “Rules of Play” are posted—and there’s a variation of a “childhood growth chart” on the door. “Some of the jungle gym areas are hard to get into if a kid is too tall,” Soto explains. To use the playground equipment, kids must be between three and five feet tall.

“And kids can’t be in Cinépolis Junior without a responsible adult—and no adults can be in the auditorium without kids,” Mijares says. “We are extra-cautious.”

“We cater to families with kids who are twelve years and younger,” Lum says. “But,” Mijares adds, “if families also have teenagers and smaller kids, we expect they’ll take the whole family. We have different types of seats in different sections, so it makes it very comfortable for everyone.”

Main seating includes six rows of rockers—89 seats—covered in colorful vinyl, each with an animated character. They’re easy to clean, but also kid-friendly. In front of them “we have two rows of double beanbags,” Lum says. “We also have one row of double pillow chairs and we have a row of great lounge chairs up front.” There’s total seating for 134 guests.

“The beanbag chairs, pillow chairs and lounges are all new and special; you don’t see those in other auditoriums,” Soto says. “They’re the favorite chairs of most of our guests.”

“What we’re trying to create is a very comfortable environment for the kids and their families, so that each person can find the best option for them,” explains Mijares. 

In the front of the auditorium is the toddler area for children three years old and younger—and their parents. Inside a colorful plastic fence is a soft-padded lawn-turf floor with molded structures—an anxious alligator, a friendly hippo and a circular bridge—for the littlest ones to climb on, over or through.

For older kids, the auditorium’s side wall holds the main attraction—a 55-foot-long, 25-foot-high play structure comprising a jungle gym with two slides at different levels, multiple climbing platforms, and pods and poles and foam-filled bags to spark the imagination and absorb the energy of kids who never expected to find this at the movies. Adventure awaits.

“The challenges have been to create a place that’s both fun and safe,” Lum explains. “Our play areas abide by all California state regulations and guidelines for inspections and age and height requirements. Our play structure is outfitted with safety netting—and our attendant is there to make sure everyone’s using it the way they’re supposed to.” 

The attendant stays from when the first families arrive until the movie concludes. “We try to pick attendants who have younger siblings, have children of their own, or who are good with young kids,” Soto explains. “And we make sure they’re fully trained and comfortable answering questions.”

“Initially, people were wondering if the playground activities were going to interfere with the movie-watching experience,” Mijares notes. “We needed to make sure that everyone understood that kids can only play on the equipment when the movie is not screening.”

The kids have 20 minutes to climb, jump, slide and explore before the movie begins. And while they play, “we have an animated trailer onscreen that describes the rules for the kids,” Soto says. “Be Careful Going Down the Slides, Kids Must Wear Socks, things like that—and it loops for the whole twenty minutes. When it ends, the attendant tells everyone they need to go back to their seats because the show is about to start. By then, they want to sit down and watch the movie.”

“There’s no playing while the film is showing,” Lum insists. “Everyone’s there to watch the movie. The movie is the reason for coming.”

And then halfway through the movie, there’s an Intermission. “It’s a fifteen-minute break where we stop the film at a point where it’s not in the middle of an important scene or we’re interrupting a great song,” Lum explains. “The film stops, the lights come up, the rules come back on the screen, and there’s a countdown clock on the screen so the kids have an idea of how long they have to play.”

“At first, I thought an intermission might be disruptive to our guests,” Soto says. “But they enjoy it because the kids can get up and get their energy out and then sit down and get back into watching the movie again. We run the complete movie—and the complete trailer package. ”

There’s no playtime after the movie ends. “Everyone has to leave,” says Lum, “because we have to clean the play equipment as well as the seats.”

“It takes a little more time to clean this auditorium,” Soto agrees, “but it’s not a lot of extra time. If you have the right people in there, they know what they need to do, and they get the job done.”

“We play PG and G movies only,” Mijares promises, “so we anticipate that we’ll have a few weeks—here and there through the year—when we might have to bring back some classic movies or recent successes to supplement the current offerings.”

“Typically, the last showing begins around eight o’clock; a later show is too late. We’re trying to move showtimes earlier in the day—starting at 10 or 10:30 in the morning,” Soto emphasizes. “We try to get five shows a day in that auditorium.”

“Studios have been very supportive with content,” Mijares says. “Our intention is to play different movies during different parts of the day on the same screen—to offer as many options as possible, so we can keep learning. We’re hungry for data.”

Soto says, “We’ve already had parents who’ve been here several times and they want to know what feature will play next in that auditorium. We’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to tell my friends to bring their kids to this auditorium because it’s fantastic.’”

“Eventually, our guests become our most effective communicators,” Lum acknowledges, “but that takes time.”

“It’s been a good opening for us,” Mijares agrees. “What we’re trying to do now is make sure that as many people as possible around the community know about the concept, that families know it’s here, and that moviegoers understand what it’s all about.”

“While this is primarily for families watching movies, we can include the play area in other packages that may not include a movie,” Lum suggests. “There are a lot of options we can offer for kids’ birthdays and other special events.”

“This is a new experience where guests are getting more value and they appreciate that.” Soto offers. “There’s a price premium of one dollar a ticket for Cinépolis Junior, but our guests see the value for the extra money they’re paying.”

“In the research we’ve done, we’ve found that people’s best memories come from an expanded entertainment experience,” Lum says. “So, here it’s not just ‘See a movie’—it’s also ‘Play in the playground with your friends.’ Being able to do both in one place elevates the overall experience.”

“It’s a fun experience,” Soto emphasizes. “I’m glad that I’m part of it; I’m proud that the theatre I manage was chosen by Cinépolis to introduce this concept to the United States.”

“When people leave,” Lum says, “we love to hear them say, ‘That blew me away. It was a concept I never expected would work, but it did—and my kids absolutely loved it.’”

“My kids love going to the movies—and we go a lot,” Mijares concludes. “I’ve shown them this concept and they’re very excited for me to take them on a trip to California for them to try it out—or to open one where we live in Dallas. I’m working on both angles.”