Dinner at the Movies Part 7: National Amusements Launches New Dining Concept

Just in time for the holiday season, North America’s fifth-largest, never resting and always evolving circuit launched its latest innovation—in-theatre dining, snack and beverage services before and during the show—on the way towards “transforming the moviegoing experience.” Under the leadership of National Amusements president Shari Redstone, a team of food and beverage, concession and theatre operations experts, as well as outside consultants, are bringing some of the offerings from the circuit’s successful “Chatters” restaurants, currently available at 16 Cinema de Lux locations, to specially designed areas inside the auditorium. Available to patrons 21-plus, this “premium reserved-seating concept” features a variety of food and beverage selections along with added amenities. “The Lux Level experience is yet one more unique way in which we are making our theatres a community entertainment destination,” corporate communications promises.

On behalf of its readers, Film Journal International expresses thanks to National Amusements (NA) for the opportunity to speak with William Towey, senior VP, operations, so very early on about this pilot program introduced at two of 16 screens at Showcase Randolph, Massachusetts. In return, we would like to remind everyone that the exclusive information relayed in this article is of a preliminary nature, with set-up and services still being tested and best practices yet to be finalized. In fact, NA is currently inviting patron feedback via a guest survey “to ensure that [Lux Level] delivers customers a premium experience from beginning to end before it rolls out to other locations.”

To begin with, NA is experimenting with the type of seating arrangement in order to find the “most comfortable movie/dining experience,” Towey explains. Randolph’s Lux Level auditoria 12 offers four rows with 46 swivel rockers and console tables; and theatre 13 has 46 love seats with moveable armrests and swivel dining trays across three rows. “Once we get sufficient feedback to determine which set-up works best,” he continues, “chances are we would go with one or the other. If we find it’s sort of a 50/50, we may well mix the options within the Lux Level seating area of each auditorium.”

Either way, both types of chairs are manufactured by Seating Concepts with superior plush padding and pleather sheen. “They’re giving us a quality product and are certainly good to work with,” Towey declares. “They redesigned the Lux Level seats many times and in each instance sent us a new prototype within a week or so of our request.”

Next, stadium risers had to be reconfigured both in depth and height to offer wider row spacing for increased legroom and smooth sailing for the wait staff, all the while securing “proper sightlines to the bottom of the screen,” he assures. Unlike the Randolph pilot, Towey anticipates future sites “depending on the size of the individual auditorium,” to have four to five rows of seats. As a rule of thumb, he says, they will replace about 1.3 times that number in regular seating. “We’re taking more room than a typical theatre owner would.”

Currently under construction for a summer opening are two new Showcase de Lux Cinemas: Florence Mall, south of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Following these during the summer of 2009 is the Legacy Place mega-development at NA’s corporate headquarters in Dedham, Massachusetts.

NA also looks for theatre layouts that allow the creation of a separate entrance to the Lux Level. Such a special waiting area may limit the number of retrofits in existing buildings to those auditoria with mezzanines. Among those, Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of an IMAX and CyGamZ video game and Internet entertainment center (FJI March and October 2007), and Maumee Showcase de Lux on the outskirts of Toledo, Ohio, are being considered at this time. According to Towey, all the new designs “will typically have direct access from a dedicated ticket and services desk to our Lux Level lounge, featuring a bar with wait service before patrons enter the upper level of the auditorium. It’s similar to going to an upscale airline club,” he observes.

The differentiated treatment and extra amenities “that the typical moviegoer doesn’t have” also include preferred parking and coat check for Lux Level guests. Due to Randolph’s volume as the second highest-grossing theatre in the circuit with 1,500 spots across three different lots, Towey says, such “parking is at a premium and offers yet another good reason for people to enjoy the Lux Level.” You can further expect to see theatre staff brushing off your car in winter weather, or offering an umbrella as you are escorted under a lighted canopy and up a special carpet to the previously mentioned concierge desk. Along with a guaranteed assigned seat, the $10 surcharge on the applicable regular admission price seems already justified. Nonetheless, this price covers a special $5 discount voucher “redeemable for any food or drink item” to boot.

Reviewing the Lux Level menu of appetizers, pizza and Panini—highlighted by Red Hook “ESB” Ale-battered Shrimp, Meatball and Ricotta Cheese Pizza and Tango Chicken Caesar Wrap—and desserts such as Warm Apple Cobbler, we wondered about the time and place of preparation. And why offer this menu independently from a “Chatters” set-up that already has a full-blown kitchen?

“All items are freshly prepared,” Towey responds. “The food we are serving [at the push of a call button] features more than just the standard concession items—although those are available too without having to leave the movie—and includes more upscale fare.” Towey hates to call it “finger food,” as the f & b team at National Amusements is trying to find the right quality offerings that “we can service easily and quickly, that are satisfying and filling, and that our patrons can eat comfortably sitting in a chair and at a small table. It would be tough to eat spaghetti during a film, don’t you think?” Towey laughs. “We are trying to present the concept as an elegant martini type of service and are finding that the younger adult crowds respond well.” Giving the choice of a Raspberry Mocha Tini and Passion Fruit Martini or Sugar Plum Cosmo and The Ultimate Margarita, a Top Shelf Long Islander sounds as good as the four selections each of “robust reds” and “vivid whites,” along with a dozen domestic and imported beers.

Orders and, later, payments are captured by a wireless device that transmits directly into the kitchen “so that they can start preparing right away.” At Showcase Randolph, for example, “Part of an existing concession operation was converted into a kitchen to handle both drinks and menu items. Our new builds will have a separate kitchen on the Lux Level mezzanine designed to service four or more auditoria with a total of roughly 180 to 220 seats,” he predicts. “We will obviously improve our cost of service by scale that way.” But also, with an expanded choice of items and wider rage of pricing, “Chatters” was really developed “as a lobby amenity for people to enjoy a full meal, snacks, alcohol and other beverages before and after the show.”

In summary, Towey notes, “The in-seat service at the Lux Level is an altogether different concept that takes movie entertainment a step further…beyond the point of ‘Let’s go out to dinner and a movie’ but rather to ‘Let’s go to a movie and dinner at the same time.’” In other words, dinner at the movies.