AMC sets the table: Fork & Screen concept refines movies & menus

With so many holiday feasts behind us, it seems hard to believe that our readers are asking for more. Even after a full-menu series with “Dinner at the Movies,” there’s apparently still room for dessert. Putting aside all dietary New Year’s resolutions, Film Journal International will gladly oblige and serve a couple of extra helpings of industry innovation and fatten up our exclusive content over the next few months.

Leave it to the heated imaginations of exhibitors to cook up more variations on in-theatre dining and drinking, such as Cobb Theatres’ CineBistro, Village Roadshow’s U.S.-flavored recipe for Gold Class entertainment, and two double-whammy burgers for Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, coming up later in 2009 and early 2010.

On Oct. 31, 2008, AMC Entertainment unwrapped the Halloween candies and total renovation of an entire wing at Studio 30 in Olathe, Kansas. In creating the new Fork & Screen flagship site, AMC executed no less than three concepts in one place and has graciously agreed to share some first-hand findings with the industry. Before getting a taste of the details, please note that the information in this article is based on operational and conceptual prototypes—regardless of how advanced and well-thought-out they already appear.

AMC’s corporate communications manager Andy DiOrio says, in general, the new venture “continues with our mission to provide our guests with the best possible out-of-home entertainment experience possible.” Olathe, in particular, features all three of the registered and/or trademarked concept names and in-theatre Seat-Side Service under the equally protected Fork & Screen (F&S) brand: Fork & Screen, “a casual in-theatre dining and entertainment experience” (reserved for guests 18-years-old and over and minors accompanied by a parent or guardian); Cinema Suites, “a premium, upscale in-theatre dining and entertainment option” for patrons 21 and older only; and MacGuffins, “a warm, relaxing and inviting bar” and “spacious lounge with soft, comfortable seating” (open to anyone with a movie ticket).

“In-theatre dining has been a part of AMC’s expanded or non-traditional business at select AMC theatres across the country for years,” DiOrio explains. “AMC has a long history of industry innovation and we continued to build upon that.” A case in point is Fork & Screen Buckhead, which under the previous name of Backlot 6 had already “been offering a dining component for more than 12 years,” DiOrio notes. With the re-opening on July 11 in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, “we wanted to introduce our Fork & Screen test concept to our guests at this popular theatre to enhance their in-theatre dining experience. The theatre is in a great location, in a key market and has loyal guests. We also believe that the remodel will also attract new guests.”

Equally well-placed, near the company headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, Studio 30 in Olathe “is one of our more popular theatres” in the marketplace. Having built the venue with true megaplex dimensions back in 1997, DiOrio admits, “we had the space to transform an entire wing of the theatre,” instead of needing “to ‘build on’ to accommodate the renovation.” With a closing on July 14, he rightfully notes how “efficient the construction went” there too. Buckhead had just been overhauled in a mere 14 weeks, coming back with around the same guest capacities as before: 460 for Fork & Screen and 46 seated of 100 people total at MacGuffins. “AMC’s design, construction and facilities department led the transformation of both theatres,” DiOrio attests. “General contractors were hired to assist with the actual construction and worked in three shifts throughout the day.”

After pointing out “an illuminated bar from the opposite wing of the theatre,” he continues our virtual tour of Olathe. “Guests enter down an initial hallway” before they reach MacGuffins, which also “serves as a general lobby/bar area.” With room at the wraparound bar counter and in the lounge for 150 and a total capacity of 250 people, MacGuffins was built in place of two former auditoriums. “The bar stands in the same general space as the former concession stand, with a full-size kitchen behind it. There is no regular concession stand. Guests may order their traditional concession favorites from their server in the auditoriums.”

Although “guests will be encouraged to arrive early to place their orders so that when the entertainment experience starts, they can just relax, eat, drink and enjoy,” DiOrio advises there is service during the movie as well. AMC has wait staff “in the auditoriums that proactively serve our guests upon their arrival.” And call buttons at seats too (manufactured by Embedded Processor Designs), “should they need additional service during their entertainment experience.” From extended risers and service aisles (every other row of seats was taken out in F&S rooms) and added partitions (Cinema Suites), “our service is designed to be seamless, so that you only notice us if you need something.”

At Buckhead, “we have chairs with high backs and a deep seat cushion, positioned on platforms and with rollers for ideal viewing with table-top dining.” At Studio 30, DiOrio continues, “our Fork & Screen auditoriums feature soft, comfortable seating and table-top dining. The Cinema Suites there offer “relaxing in plush, reclining seats with eight-foot [2.4 m.] row spacing and swivel tables.” Before the renovation, those theatres, splitting into separate hallways with five on one side and six on the other, had some 1,783 seats. After the remodel, the eight F&S and three Cinema Suite auditoriums have 740 seats, featuring 32 each in the Suites and 54 in the smallest Fork & Screens.
One key point DiOrio makes sure to mention is that “although some of the auditoriums are smaller in occupancy size, the screens in each auditorium are double the size of what they would normally be.” For example, “our largest Fork & Screen auditorium is 122 seats with a screen built for an auditorium of 244 seats. This way, our guests can have an intimate experience in a big-screen viewing environment.”

To further that experience, “Buckhead and Studio 30 received new, larger screens, new surround sound, and updated projectors,” DiOrio adds. “Those theatres will be fitted with digital projection when their respective markets are converted to digital through our partnership with Digital Cinema Implementation Partners.”

Whereas the public might be waiting for those megabytes to materialize, they have already thoroughly tasted the more mouthwatering bites. “At these theatres and all our theatres, AMC serves a diverse and wide-ranging audience,” DiOrio says of the overall positive reception. “Guests have really enjoyed the differentiated experience and love the convenience of having dinner, as well as drinks before or after their entertainment experience, in one location. We had one Kansas City media outlet comment that the MacGuffins area at AMC Studio 30 looked like one of the coolest bars in town. Other guests have commented that if they weren’t in a movie theatre, they would have thought they were in a club.”

Having the right people—and plenty of them—obviously adds to any cinema club’s success as well. AMC partnered with McDonnell Kinder and Associates (MKA), which DiOrio calls “a worldwide leader in culinary and operational development,” to help develop the menus and concept. Although not at liberty to disclose hiring practices or training strategies, he can tell FJI readers that “our associates did go through specific training so our guests could thoroughly enjoy their in-theatre dining experience… Both theatres have a general manager that oversees the entire theatre. Studio 30 has separate associates who are dedicated to the Fork & Screen wing.” Overall, Buckhead 6 and Studio 30 employ close to 300 associates, making a much-needed economic impact well beyond the entertainment value.

“As this is still a test concept,” going forward, DiOrio envisions, “based on the success of these two locations, we’ll then evaluate plans of implementing the concept, or a version thereof, at select existing and newly constructed theatres.”

Spotlight: ‘More than Milk Duds’

To select some of the highlights from the menu at MacGuffins, Fork & Screen and Cinema Suites, we relied on the local expertise of Robert W. Butler of The Star, Kansas City, posted on Oct. 31, 2008:

“It’s a movie theatre offering real meals,” he wrote. “It’s a restaurant that shows films. It’s the coolest-looking barroom in Kansas City; it just happens to be in a suburban megaplex. The new Fork & Screen concept at AMC’s Studio 30 in Olathe may be something else, too: a reason for grown-ups to go back to the movies.”

Fork & Screen Food:
Wood-roasted chicken quesadillas: $8.99
Thai coconut chicken tenders: $9.59
Parmesan fries: $6.95
Hail Caesar! Salad: $8.79
Flatbread pizzettas (Margherita, Tuscan, Romesco roasted chicken): $9.29-$9.79
Roasted chicken and mozzarella rigatoni: $9.99
Bacon cheeseburger: $9.99
Grillers (BBQ pulled pork, verite veggie, Velveeta cheese, lime chicken, prime rib: $8.79-$9.99

Fork & Screen Dessert:

Darkiccino chocolate brownie, peach cobbler: $6.29
I Love NY Cheesecake: $5.99

Fork & Screen Drink:

Pitcher of Boulevard Wheat, Boulevard Pale Ale, Fat Tire or Guinness: $21.49 ($4.89 a pint)
Bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (most expensive wine): $42 ($10.50 a glass)
Bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel (least expensive wine): $28 ($7 a glass)
Fruit smoothies, milkshakes: $4.99
Coffee: $2.49