Film, Food and Fun: Studio Movie Grills to Perfection

Film and food have long made a perfect pair. Starting in the 1970s, enterprising exhibitors allowed patrons to take their pilsner and pizza inside the picture show. The Brew'n'Views and Cinema Drafthouses were born. Today, as with the entire moviegoing experience, the very same concept has matured and is beginning to reach a new level of sophistication and ever-increasing market share. Over the next several issues, Film Journal International will highlight the development from draft to dining by profiling the major and most innovative players in the marketplace.

Debuting the series with Studio Movie Grill in our Construction & Design issue seemed appropriate for two reasons. In addition to their pioneering role in securing first-run films--as opposed to grindhouse-type titles to go with the grinders--for this type of theatrical venue, the company now has locations that are purpose-built from the ground up to accommodate "Film, Food and Fun." Secondly, by raising the bar on quality, co-owner Brian Schultz is also instrumental in changing the still-lingering perception of sub-par entertainment. He has, in fact, begun a whole new branding campaign by changing the category name to movie grill.

"I love movies and I stopped going," admits Brian Schultz of Studio Movie Grill, "because I thought the experience sucked." At first this may seem like a surprise statement coming from the founder, co-owner and president of five very popular cinema and restaurant complexes with a total of 40 screens across Texas. Like all good entrepreneurs, however, Schultz did something about the problem and built his passion for pictures into a viable business. "As we have this age shift, as people like service," he asked himself, "why can't a movie theatre provide good quality service and care about the customer? That's why I think our concept is the future for the entire industry." Today, each Studio Movie Grill combines first-run movies, a state-of-the-art viewing experience and high-quality food into "a significantly more enjoyable night out than going to dinner and a movie separately."

"Everything we do is based on the philosophy of 'Film, Food and Fun,'" Schultz says, aware that Studio Movie Grills have to compete with the best of two worlds. On the hospitality side, there are "the highest level of 'fast-casual' restaurants" including the likes of Cheesecake Factory, Fish City Grill, Mi Cocina and P.F. Chang's China Bistro at the newest location in Arlington, Texas. "Our food has to be so good that--although they do not have to have a meal with us--people don't even think about going to eat somewhere else." In terms of film as well, Studio Movie Grill offers "a premium experience with a more comfortable environment, more space, all those things," he says, "along with the best presentation."

The original inspiration, Schultz says, hit him back in the late 1980s when he was working for a U.S. senator. Visiting the Cinema Grill in Bethesda, Maryland, he truly enjoyed watching The Commitments and having some bar-type food at the same time: "Wow. Eating and watching...in the same space...," the story goes, "if only it were more comfortable...if only it were a first-run movie...if only it were great food...if only, if only..."

After leaving politics behind and a rather inconclusive attempt to adapt food rules and alcohol regulations of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to a movie theatre, he found a better opportunity in the Lone Star State. Upon his relocation to Dallas in 1993, Schultz and business partner Martin Massman took over the historic Granada Theater and continued the 1930s Art Deco downtown cinema's then-policy of sub-run movie house/restaurant until 1998. As they renovated a former United Artists five-plex in the North Dallas suburb of Addison into their first "movie grill," the Granada went on to become a concert venue. Believing that his particular concept should offer more than other similar venues, Schultz upgraded the entire facility along with menu, service and film presentation.

Additional movie grills followed in Plano and Houston-Copperfield (studiomoviegrill.com), each one providing further insight into improved operations and better design and construction. At that time, he recalls, "It was, how do you serve several hundred people? Now it is providing thousands of guests in a one-hour period with fresh, high-quality, made-to-order food and get it all done before the movie starts." At the new Arlington location, it takes a large, fully trained kitchen and wait staff in addition to custom-designed restaurant software to help with the ordering process. "As far as the volume and speed are concerned, we are more like a stadium or ball park than a regular restaurant." Unlike the latter, however, the kitchen and menu of executive chef Thad Kelley were featured twice on the Food Network's Top Five. Not to mention numerous regional awards for items like shrimp and rib platters, hand-tossed pizza with honey-baked dough, Brownie Sundaes and the signature Studio Grandé Blue Margarita.

With a grand opening on Jan. 15, the Arlington Studio Movie Grill is the company's very first to have been purpose-built from the ground up. April 30 marked the second debut this year, with eight screens and 1,500 seats for Lewisville, located in the northwestern suburbs of the Dallas Metroplex. On the horizon for that area is a freestanding Studio Movie Grill in Frisco and, also purpose-built from the ground up, the Town & Country Studio Movie Grill in Houston (both for 2008).

Arlington's nine auditoria, kitchen, lobby and multiple service areas take up 40,000 of the lifestyle center's total 910,000 square feet (3,700 of 84,500 sq. meters). Adding dramatic force to the concept, "we built the largest screen in Texas at 70 feet wide [21 m] and added over 150 speakers and 30,000 watts of power. It's kind of a Texas thing to have or be the largest," he laughs.

"From the second our guests enter the doors, you want to provide that upscale, personalized experience," Schultz continues. "Our box offices are more like concierge stations and located inside rather than dealing through glass and a microphone" (Internet, ATM and ticketing software are by Ticketsoft.) Lobby areas are stylishly designed in what he describes as "boutique hotel décor." Each auditorium has rows of stationary tables with "individual leather recliner seats that swivel, roll and tilt," which are both "100% custom designed for Studio Movie Grill exclusively."

"We have worked very hard over the years to design our theatres so that food and beverage service is not distracting during the movie," he insists. In addition to a tiered floor system and wide aisles, Studio Movie Grill has a coaster call button for service and/or refills that Schultz actually finds "less distracting than being in a regular movie theatre... It's kind of like having a stagehand. We really built it into the environment with wall-to-wall carpeting [by Ingram & Associates] on the floors and covering all the counters. creating a more controlled sound." In the construction of Arlington, "we also used a product called Durra Wall, which allowed us to put in a super-heavy sound system without any sound bleed whatsoever," and exceeding today's highest THX standards, he says. "We isolated every wall and built each auditorium to the exact ratio that I think is optimum for sound and presentation. It is one of the areas that we are a bit fanatical about," he contends. "You cannot allow a distraction. As good as our food is, as good as everything else is, the driving factor is the film."

The complex is nonetheless outfitted to handle any special event as well, from corporate meetings to private birthday parties. Dedicated planners are on hand to assist with creating themes, selecting menu items and renting additional equipment. Hard-wired digital video projectors allow for instant "plug-and-play" display on the large cinema screens for conferences and meetings. (For more detail on products used by Studio Movie Grill, see the accompanying sidebar.)

"Even the efficiency of our customers getting in and out is all based on the guest experience," Schultz continues. "A lot of our customers will hang out at the bar lobby and seating areas to talk about the movie," he notes, but getting people out once the movie ended is not an issue, because "they are conditioned to get up."

"We really look at ourselves as the perfect place for movie lovers. Maybe because we get more sophisticated people and older demographics, our guests just love to stay and talk about entertainment and current events rather than seeing a movie and then doing something else. That's a really cool feature that people can't get elsewhere."

Getting distributors to commit to delivering first-run product "took a lot of persistence," Schultz recalls about the stigma attached to cinema drafthouses and brew'n'views. "Really, like most things, it took one person giving you a chance." Crediting James Nocella from Buena Vista Distribution for his foresight in sending a print of The Waterboy on opening weekend, they both were rewarded with excellent numbers. "Slowly but surely, all the other studios followed suit. The first reason being that we are able to break the preconceived notion of low-quality cinema drafthouses and, secondly, we have some of the highest grosses on a per-screen basis in the industry. Our locations are among the highest-grossing theatres in the areas in which we operate." It probably also helps that, with its premium offerings, Studio Movie Grill charges the same or just below competitors' ticket prices. "We are all about the customer experience and providing value to our customers." In true showmanship spirit, Schultz maintains, "We offer first-run movies in a first-class setting, but we don't charge first-class prices."

And moviegoers are first in line to enjoy it. "It is a distinctly different customer from the megaplexes," Schultz concludes, noting that Movie Studio Grill patrons average 20 visits a year. "Our customers become very loyal" and, best for all, perhaps, "never hurt attendance levels at the megaplexes."


Projection Perfection
"Studio Movie Grill utilizes an exceptional custom-assembled package, producing a level of quality unsurpassed by any theatre in the Southwest and allowing for a truly phenomenal movie experience." (Company statement to the media)

* Pennywise CA21 automation systems: Custom-modified Autowind 3R platters are the core of a film-transport system that allows movies to be played in any auditorium, or combination of auditoriums, all the while running all films "wet gate" with FilmGuard.
* Kinoton projectors, custom-modified with Christie's SLC-FT lamphouses
* Schneider Optics lenses, coupled with true optical-glass port windows by Goldberg
* Harkness screens
* Six-channel Dolby Digital Surround EX
* QSC Pro digital cinema audio amplifiers and speaker systems tuned with THX D2 system

Brad Miller of Film-Tech personally certifies every projectionist. He custom-designs every system and handles all projection and sound equipment installation and calibration to ensure stringent standards.