Incredibowl! Malco rolls 50+ years of bowling experience into family entertainment

Cinemas Features

“During the mid-1950s, we actually entered into the bowling business as a hedge against the declining theatre attendance with the emergence of television,” explains Robert “Bobby” Levy, executive VP, advertising and marketing at Malco Theatres. “My father and uncles were looking for an additional line of business.”

The subsequently developed “chain of bowling centers reached its peak with about 12 locations during the 1960s.” Opened in 1959 and 1960, featuring 32 and 40 lanes respectively, Circle Bowl in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Lafayette Lanes are still operating today. Talk about Malco management placing a good hedge! Also located in Lafayette, 32 Acadiana Lanes replete with “Cajun Concessions” followed in 1984, while the latest and greatest center completed the Louisiana lineup on Dec. 30, 2013.

The opening of Premier Lanes in Gonzales, Ascension Parish, Louisiana not only showcases what local press deems “a state-of-the-art hub of action, activity and fun for people of all ages.” It also represents, Levy says, the prototype of “bowling and a Family Entertainment Center combined with a cinema” that Malco intends to develop going forward. Offering 26 lanes of bowling by QubicaAMF, party rooms and redemption game arcade, bumper cars, a laser maze and the “Ball Wall Café,” these facilities together offer another prime example for our exclusive series about Cinema Entertainment Centers.

The adjacent 11-screen, 1,500-seat Gonzales multiplex, which opened on May 15, 2014, does represent other firsts as well, marking the first theatre to open in the town in 30 years and the theatrical debut of Malco Theatres in Louisiana. Its upscale lobby offers a cinema lounge, complete with fireplace and sitting area, and features an expanded concession menu that includes Pretzel Haus snacks, Pronto Pups corn dogs and Funnel Cake Fries in addition to Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn–all to enjoy in auditoriums with “luxurious oversized seats, state-of-the-art Dolby 7.1 digital surround sound and wall-to-wall curved screens.”

Whereas in Gonzales the cinema opened after the Family Entertainment Center (FEC) component was completed, on the second Premier Lanes location in Oxford, Missouri, the movies got the ball rolling early. While operating the town’s Oxford Studio Cinema, Malco had also purchased a shuttered 11-stadium-screen theatre by June of last year. (“It was only open briefly for about eight months,” Levy notes.) The fully renovated Oxford Commons Cinema reopened on October 11, 2013, well ahead of the FEC that is scheduled for the coming holiday season. “In Gonzales we already had our bowling infrastructure in place, which we were looking to expand,” Levy explains this two-lane approach. “Once that was completed and when we saw how successful that market was for us, we went ahead with the theatre component.” It was built next door inside a former Walmart, although “you would never know it,” he assures about the transformation.

The same rings true at Oxford Commons, which now offers “a date-worthy dining experience” at the full-service grill featuring “a wide array of choices, along with traditional movie snacks.” The renovation and upgrades brought in “a lobby bar, all new luxury seats, upgraded sound systems, and state-of-the-art digital projection” for eight auditoriums. As the media release issued at the launch further noted, thanks to the additional screens “Malco plans to bring more documentaries, foreign and independent movies” to Oxford, augmenting the availability of cinema entertainment.

Oxford Commons also has an outdoor amphitheatre of about 200 seats, which Malco has retained as part of the Cinema Entertainment Center. “Since we are obviously dealing with the weather there, ‘The Amp’ will typically play as an add-on to whatever big picture is opening in any given week,” Levy explains. “We have shown some of the night games of the Ole Miss Rebels as well. It lends itself for just about anything including concerts.” He calls it a work in progress. “This is a standalone theatre building, so we acquired some additional land to house the entertainment center. Although it is connected to the cinema, sharing a common wall, the FEC will not open directly to the theatre. Both facilities will be operating separately,” though synergistically. “In Gonzales, there is the potential for free flow between both sides, but we have not instituted that option.”

While the CECs featured in this publication so far generally have an open design and encourage commingling of all available options, Malco prefers “to first establish both operations successfully in their own right,” Levy notes. “And that has occurred.” This physical separation does not impede customers from taking full advantage of the side-by-side locations. “People do attend both, definitely. There is a lot of synergy.” He names “corporate groups that offer a moviegoing option while having an event at the Family Entertainment Center.”

Whereas the cinema component is “traditionally operated,” Levy also acknowledges the importance of having specialists for each area of the FEC. “We have a person in charge of food operations,” he says, “and there is someone taking care of general operations.” Underlining the importance of special events for entertainment centers, “our dedicated sales department is going out and beating the bushes to develop corporate and group sales. Unlike our theatres, where a third party handles the game areas,” at Premier Lanes and the bowling centers, Malco owns the games in the “Action Alley” arcades. “We have our own team to maintain the games. We upgrade as necessary and circulate them throughout our different locations. In our new facilities, the games have become a much more important part of the revenue stream than in our traditional bowling centers.”

Given Malco’s long history in the segment, Bobby Levy can provide insight into why entertainment offerings are being expanded today. “Traditionally, back in the day, bowling was dependent on daily leagues. During the 1960s, when women were not going to work as much as they do today, they would play during the day; and in the evening there were men’s and couples’ leagues,” which was called double shifting. “As society has changed…it is harder for people to lock into a fixed, weekly time period. Bowling has gone through its life cycle and leagues have diminished in importance while open bowling has increased. By adding other components into the entertainment mix, we can offer something for everybody in the family. So we have over 50 video and arcade games, offer bumper car rides and a laser maze.”

In differentiating the latter from laser tag, Levy asks, “Do you remember the movie Entrapment? When Catherine Zeta-Jones had to navigate through those laser beams to get to the objects that she was trying to steal? We have a room that works pretty much in the same fashion. You get timed while going through these beams and you can make it easier or harder. People line up to get in there,” he chuckles.

“The bumper cars are not as you would find them at fairs,” Levy says, correcting the assumption that they might take up a lot of space. “We have about eight cars and the rides are only a couple of minutes long. It is all very, very kid-friendly.”

The party and function rooms are parent-friendly, one might say. “They are popular for birthdays. People like to bowl or play for a while and then have a separate place to cut the cake and where they can let the kids loose.”

Grown-ups who feel like doing the same can visit the “Ascension Zone” VIP area at Premier Lanes. “This six-lane ‘boutique’ section can be closed off and rented separately for small groups to well over 100 people. You also find video screens there and our guests can watch sporting events,” highlighted by a 12 by 40 foot wall located right above the lanes.

Maximum fun is provided by the “incredibowl” offer at Premiere Lanes Gonzales, which for $92.50 includes 90 minutes of bowling for up to six people per lane (shoe rentals included), plus one large one-topping pizza, with one pitcher with soda and five $5 game cards for “Action Alley.”

With Premier Lanes coming to Oxford in time for the holidays, what else does Malco have up its FEC sleeve? “There are markets that we are studying that already have theatres, but there is an opportunity for an improved bowling presence.” In this case, Levy says, the prospective Family Entertainment Center does not necessarily have to be adjacent to the movies but it could be built elsewhere in the area. “It is what it is in certain markets, because the theatre is already there. Other markets need both cinema screens and bowling lanes,” he has observed. “In fact, we are starting construction on a new theatre here in Memphis that will also have a bowling and Family Entertainment Center element.”

“Each person and company has to see what works for them in their particular market.” Bobby Levy closes on some good words of advice. “There is a multitude of available options for bowling centers these days. You go from a ‘boutique’ setup of about ten lanes with a much larger bar component, to centers with 20 to 26 lanes, plus other attractions and games that are more ‘family’-oriented than they are catering to adult guests. Everyone is trying to zero in on what works for them.”