Metropolitan Style: Venerable Western circuit upgrades three locations

Cinemas Features

Metropolitan Theatres Corporation (MTC) recently upgraded three locations in California and Colorado to plusher seating along with popular adult beverage options and food beyond popcorn, as well as other enhancements and improvements. “We try and stay on top of what’s going out in the industry,” confirms David Corwin, president of the Los Angeles-based exhibition company. “By no means are we a first-mover,” he admits, “but we carefully see what the other circuits are doing in different markets. Certainly, there has been a great response everywhere, primarily to the luxury recliner seating, and then as well to expanded food and beverage, including beer and wine selections at a minimum.”

The enhancements at Hitchcock Cinema & Public House (Santa Barbara, CA), Isis Theatre (Aspen CO) and MetroLux (Loveland, CO) have come to movie theatres from three different eras. The Isis dates back to around 1915, while the renamed Hitchcock Cinema builds on 39 years as the former Plaza de Oro twin (opened Christmas 1978 with a total capacity of 600 seats). The MetroLux 14 in Loveland was originally launched in October 2006 as a joint venture of Metropolitan and Trans-Lux Theatres. Given the latest luxury upgrade, “it was conveniently already called that,” Corwin chuckles.

With 16 locations and 89 screens in California, Colorado, Idaho and Utah, Corwin points towards unique characteristics that they all share and that represent MTC’s strategy of continuity and carefully moving forward. “Each of the markets and locations is really different, so there is not one concept that would fit in everywhere. We look at each location to try and determine what makes sense and then come up with a game plan…depending on the market and the size of the theatre and the available space for providing different amenities.” With limited room for expansion, he continues, “trying to figure out what to do and what works for any given market…takes a little bit more attention to detail and often ends up taking more time.”

Operating in smaller as well as in resort markets, “we don’t have a set footprint that we are going to go pluck down anywhere.” He names Park City, Utah, and Santa Barbara as examples of “cities that attract a lot of visitors but also have a bigger permanent population basis. Either way, there are a lot of regulations on development. While that can be a challenge, it is also one of our strengths to do what we can to maximize both the efficiency and business opportunities within the confines of the restrictions that exist.”

Whereas “many of the alcoholic beverage and control boards are mostly embracing the concept of alcohol in theatres,” Corwin reminds us that “for a long time, they did not view this as a positive… For a circuit like ours, with a manageable number of locations, where we want to do each one differently and find what is right for that one individual market, it takes a little bit more thought and time to get things going.”

From the get-go, the venerable Isis Theatre was the one to get beer and wine flowing. In June 2014, MTC announced an expanded menu featuring fine selections from area wineries and local craft beers from Aspen Brewing Company. At the time, the groundwork was laid for the upgrade process. Phase one of recent renovations saw construction of a beer and wine bar on the downstairs level. Subsequently, luxury seating with rockers and recliners, as well as new carpeting and tile, and digital signage, were completed by December. Completely rebuilt in 1998-99, with only the historic 1892 warehouse façade remaining at that time, the Isis Theatre had been expanded to five stadium auditoriums (one has since turned into retail).

Another early dispenser of beer and wine was the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, a 1931 atmospheric, 2,000-seat masterpiece of movie palace design for Fox West Coast Theatres. Doubling as a performing arts and live events venue, “we had a restricted license at the Arlington for a long time that was confined to a patio space, and people could not bring alcohol inside the auditorium.” Expanding this to apply to the entire theatre really made the Arlington “the first place in Santa Barbara where people could have a drink inside the auditorium. There are many live shows there, so circumstances are a little bit different there.” For Corwin, this is the reason why “the Hitchcock was the first traditional theatre where we went about securing a license.”

Again, uniqueness was a key factor in making changes. Located on South Hitchcock Way (hence the name does not come from the director), the twin arthouse is “off the beaten path.” Other MTC movie houses in Santa Barbara are mostly centered around State Street, “which is the main street in Santa Barbara and features a very high concentration of liquor licenses already in place. There is always a lot more scrutiny and resistance to adding licenses to that area,” Corwin has observed. “So, it would make sense to do the Hitchcock first to be getting some experience with one location and demonstrate that it can work without a problem.” The strategy worked indeed, with an application for their Paseo Nuevo four-plex approved “only a couple of weeks ago” in August.

At the end of June, renovations at The Hitchcock Cinema & Public House were completed in the style of an English pub, with food and beverages to match. The theatre’s lobby and public areas received new flooring, wall coverings and lighting. Additional amenities will be taken under advisement; the announcement goes on to list reserved seating, recliners and further improvements to the interior.

During the process the cinemas remained open, though Corwin confirms it was not easy. “We did not expand the space in any way. We reconfigured it somewhat to accommodate the bigger food menu,” including mac ’n’ cheese, hamburger and hot dog sliders, pizza, chicken tenders and the like. “All items that can be made in a fryer or a Turbo Chef that fit on the back of the counter.” These options, along with spinach artichoke dip, chocolate molten cake and freshly baked chocolate chunk cookies, allow compliance with the conditions of the alcohol license without having to go all-out cooking or all-in theatre service. “Space is limited here and we have not built out big kitchens. But we have some plans in the works on new developments to further expand on food operations,” he assures. “In those situations, there is more room and we can design from the beginning.”

Isis was another space-saver situation. Corwin gives credit to Proctor Companies for reconfiguring existing concession stands there and creating the wine and craft beer bar in the process. “They certainly have a lot of experience in creating space for the equipment necessary for the addition of food items. I think it was equally important to display both wine coolers and beer taps. That is part of the experience and being able to attractively show off what you are offering is a very good marketing tool.”

Even in a larger venue like the MetroLux 14, using available spaces effectively and efficiently remains a valuable tool in redesign. While the “luxury wing” received a new bar and food counter, in addition to recliner seating for six of the 14 auditoriums, by “taking advantage of more space,” Corwin says, the Loveland location has no full-blown kitchen. Yet, as noted in the media release, the newly added Lux Lounge offers “a varied menu of appetizers, entrees and desserts, and a wide selection of wine and craft beer, including Loveland’s own Grimm Bros Brewhouse” to ticket holders “before, during or after a film.”

Completed last November, the total upgrade bill came to $2 million, and has already proven well worth it. “We have since, in just the last few weeks, had the license expanded,” Corwin reports, noting that it was previously limited to the Lux Lounge area of the complex. “Now we can offer alcohol to be taken anywhere in the theatre and are making adjustments to the main stand to allow for beer and wine sales and adding food items as well.”

Asked for advice on how to find just the right ingredients for a redo, Corwin acknowledges, “When you are doing several things at once, it is hard to pinpoint what is driving success. Is it our recliners, reserved seating, alcohol and/or expanded food options? Realistically, it is probably a combination of all those things when you go with all the amenities at once.”

Further on that note, The Hitchcock should prove “interesting,” he foresees, “because we updated lobby and restrooms, reconfigured the bar and food. But, to date we have not changed the seating. While we plan on getting to that as well, the interim will give us a barometer to see how traffic is affected before and after that additional piece of the upgrade is completed.”

Taking the summary perspective, MTC really seems to select their locations very well. The venues have continuously served their markets since they were opened by the company. That leaves this author to wonder whether this is the result of wisdom acquired over the course of four generations in one exhibition family? “Look, we try,” David Corwin humbly deflects. “I think partially it is due to some of the characteristics of the markets. Real estate is scarce and expensive, and once you are operating in some of these markets, it can be a challenge. And not just for new development. Sometimes updating your locations is not as efficient as it would be to do something new, just because of the restrictions you encounter on the existing space. It can also be much more expensive to redo spaces and not be able to design them as you would originally.”

That said, Corwin believes on the positive side, “it leads to the character of some of these locations, giving some historical value to what is there while also trying to adapt for modern amenities.”