Doing More with Less: With recliner seats and building retrofits, Emagine maximizes the guest experience

Cinemas Features

“I really believe that the advent of luxury seating is a paradigm shift for the industry, much like stadium seating was,” says Paul Glantz, founder and chairman of Troy, Michigan-based Emagine Entertainment. “Most everybody in the industry will find their way towards it eventually.”

Focusing on the company’s Cinema Hollywood in Birch Run, Michigan, which just underwent the luxury treatment to officially come under the Emagine Entertainment brand, Film Journal International had the opportunity to find out how Glantz and his team found their way to recliner seating. “We had the economic resources to do so and felt it was the right thing to do in order to continue treating our guests very well.” By refurbishing Cinema Hollywood, he adds, it has essentially become as good as new.

When it opened in May 1997, Cinema Hollywood was the first theatre in Michigan to feature stadium seating, beating out Star Southfield 20 by about two weeks. The 360-degree tour at the bottom of this page still shows Cinema Hollywood before its renovation into Emagine Birch Run.

Jeanne Lane, general manager at Birch Run and nearby Clio Square Cinema, who has been working there since before opening day, does recall initial plans that were, in fact, still intended for sloped floors. The rest is history, as they say. The six-plex was expanded to its current ten screens in 1999, she tells us during a guided tour with Frank Ficalora, Emagine’s VP of operations—and president and national delegate of NATO of Michigan. Both of them were full of praise for the “outstanding job” their general contractor (Michigan-based Tower Construction) has done in keeping the movie business moving throughout the retrofit. Beginning in February, “we closed the first five screens,” Lane explains; subsequently all risers were re-poured and all-new wall coverings and floors were installed, alongside sound and picture upgrades and more. “The other auditoriums followed afterwards and all was completed by May,” she reports.

Glantz mentions that, as an early stadium site, Cinema Hollywood had placed its seating with 42-inch row spacing (107 cm). So, in the latest retrofit to recliners that width “actually converted better—at exactly two for one—than our other theatres where we had 46-inch row spacing [117 cm]. Looking at the adage of 20 years ago in terms of efficiency—how many seats do you get in per square foot?—it’s a whole different business, isn’t it?”

Throughout the entire conversion process, Ficalora assures, “our guests were fully informed about what was happening, with signage provided and explanations and updates given by staff and management. Obviously, we tried to schedule the work causing the most dust and noise during off hours.” Following the conversion to recliners, guest reaction about the changes, which include allocated seating throughout, has been 98% positive. “You just can’t make everybody happy,” he knows. One guest—not at Birch Run—wrote him a letter requesting a refund because he had fallen asleep in the recliners five times during his last six movies. That quibble aside, the combination of luxury and reserved seating, along with the opportunity to enjoy fountain offerings at the added Coca-Cola Freestyle stations, is “changing the perspective on guest experience,” Ficalora feels. “Birch Run is all about convenience, comfort and luxury now.”

Usually upgrades and improvements come at a price. “We increased prices modestly in some locations, and not at all at others,” Glantz notes. He continues, “We are in a market-share business. It’s all about enticing folks to visit our venues. Anything that works as a distraction to that, we want to avoid. I think in making the moviegoing better, enhancing the quality and comfort while holding an eye on price is a good combination to attract consumers.”

Being the first newly built theatre for then-emerging Emagine Entertainment chain, Cinema Hollywood is the second-to-last of the nine locations to be converted to recliners (with Emagine Novi remaining). What took so long? Although it may seem paradoxical, excellent management is the answer. Glantz gives credit to his general manager. “The truth is that Cinema Hollywood has had a great run for many years and continues to do well… Jeanne Lane does such a good job at maintaining that venue and keeping it impeccably clean… The way in which it had been maintained was almost counterproductive to making these improvements.”

While Glantz is clearly proud of Lane and her team, how Emagine Entertainment first found its way to recliner seating is a different story. “I’m not proud of that one,” he humbly admits, deferring to another industry pioneer. “While Emagine has been leading the charge in many ways, in this particular case we saw and learned from what AMC had done in Madison Heights [in Michigan].” According to Glantz, their Star John R 15 at Madison Place Shopping Center enjoyed a big uptick in ticket sales, “more than doubling their attendance after installing luxury chairs. So, while we were not first-to-market,” he chuckles, “we were a quick second.”

Emagine Canton was first to be remodeled. All 18 auditoriums were completed by the end of 2014 and upgrades to the lobby and lounge areas finished this past summer. “The market receptivity has been very strong wherever we have installed these seats,” Glantz assures. “Candidly speaking, this has not necessarily tremendously increased our attendance everywhere. But what this has done is to make us more resilient against the competition as it reinforces our commitment in the marketplace.”

Finding just the right recliner seat took some resilience too and ultimately became a matter of introduction to a new manufacturer. Through a consultant, Emagine connected with a large Michigan furniture retailer that, in turn, opened the doors to Palliser in Canada. Glantz elaborates, “Palliser was very receptive to the opportunity to enter the theatrical marketplace, allowing us to play a very large role—if not a singular role—in helping develop the seats that we have in a number of our venues today.”

Glantz goes on to name some of the features which convinced Emagine that seat was the right fit. With a single motor design, there are fewer parts to fail, as “the footrest elevates entirely before the seat back articulates backward,” he says. “We are very happy with the durability of the Palliser seats and we found ourselves recommending them to other theatre chains.” Lane further explains that all seats can be reclined up and down simultaneously across the auditorium from a handheld device.

Emagine is committed to installing recliner seating and that includes the latest construction project in Frankfort, Illinois, their first foray outside of their home state. While Glantz believes a “limited number of underserved markets remain in Michigan,” what really drove the decision to move to Frankfort was the success of Emagine Macomb. “This was a retrofit of a former grocery store that had gone done dark. Repurposing that space—and, in fact, any existing box that fits in with our profile—turns out to be a very favorable economic model. You can purchase land, building and site work, including a good bit of infrastructure, which we need in our business, for far less than reproduction cost. Frankfort is another retrofit of a defunct grocery store, with a favorable capital expenditure in relation to anticipated patronage.”

Glantz calls the market for the 10-screen venue with some 1,300 recliners and expanded food and beverage options “favorable” in terms of demographics. “I call it the needle in the haystack. We found what I believe to be a really terrific location with the opportunity to get into the business at a lower cap-ex than we would have building it from scratch.”

Also on the horizon is the state of Minneapolis, where Glantz and his business partner, Jon Goldstein, have entered into a purchase agreement for Muller Family Theatres. “The Muller brothers, whose chain served the Minneapolis/St. Paul marketplace very well for many, many years, were inclined to retire,” he relays. “We saw a great opportunity to expand our brand and to bring the recliner-chair concept there as well.” Some 4,000 are on order already for the upcoming remodeling rollout. “We have extensive renovation plans for five of the eight theatres initially, with the other ones not far behind.”

That’s quite the project coming up. “No doubt about it,” Glantz concurs. “Doubling the size of your chain and then, concurrently, undertaking renovations in 70% of the estate is a pretty substantial undertaking.”

Returning to Birch Run, the results of the renovations have been substantial as well. July was the best month in the theatre’s 20-year history. “We dropped two-thirds of our seating capacity and had the highest attendance ever,” Glantz reports. “And the last time I looked, August was already at 85% compared to last year. Clearly, what we have done is resonating nicely with consumers.”

With all that resonating, Paul Glantz “wholeheartedly” believes in the future of moviegoing. “No question about it,” he says. At the same time, “each and every one in our industry faces the same challenge of providing that exemplary out-of-home experience so that people continue to come out and patronize films in the very setting where they were meant to be seen. We face more indirect competitors today than we ever have, but there is an undeniable attraction to our business: Going out to the movies is a communal and social experience—a real desire on the part of folks to leave their homes to be entertained. So, we have to make sure that we offer a quality experience. We have to create a real value proposition where folks do feel that leaving their home is worth their while and hard-earned money.”