Quo Vadis, Concessions? Industry experts are leading the way with new ideas

The initials QVC, as set by channel founder Joseph Segel in 1986, stand for Quality, Value and Convenience to 141 million home shoppers in four major countries, and there is no better match to the trend-line in our industry. Product quality, value pricing, and convenience in service are all identified as major factors in our exclusive survey on theatre snacks, which, in the spirit of one of our favorite movies, asks: “Quo Vadis, Concessions?”

As always, Film Journal International gratefully acknowledges the expert advice received from top industry players, perfect popcorn poppers and gourmet coffee makers. For starters, let’s turn to Brussels, Belgium, though not for the vegetable sprouts but because of the 21st -anniversary overhaul that the Kinepolis, “the world’s first and largest megaplex,” recently received.

Along with a total face-lift (see European Update in this issue), Kinepolis Group is making sure that moviegoers’ bodies are looking good too. Not only are they burning extra calories by helping themselves to the refreshments of their choice, they have more beneficial options to choose from. “We are responding to increasing demand for healthy food and beverages,” confirms the Group’s corporate communication manager, Myriam Dassonville. “In addition to proven sellers like cola, potato chips, hot dogs and popcorn, Kinepolis now also offers a choice of fruit juices and waters, yoghurt drinks, sandwiches and rolls, fruit and more.”

About the self-service option that has replaced long counters and lines, she advises that these large shops “were a great success when they were introduced in various of our multiplexes during the past few years. Self-service for snacks, beverages and retail products like DVDs and books has enabled Kinepolis to achieve the targeted rise in turnover per customer on all accounts while reducing operating costs. In response, self-service was also introduced at the Brussels site.”

No expense and time are spared in the coastal Connecticut, USA town of Madison when owner Arnold Gorlick makes coffee at his charming art-house twin Madison Art Cinemas, profiled in our May 2009 edition. “People actually come in off the streets,” he says about “The Shrine,” as staff and customers have come to know the coffee-making set-up. Utilizing a double-headed FAEMA Enova, “the Rolls Royce of espresso machines,” and high-end grinder, which “doses precisely each shot” of imported Essse beans, Gorlick only buys coffee of the “most extraordinary” fair-trade variety “from around the world” that is sourced locally by a micro roaster. “We grind, pack and brew every whole-bean pot fresh,” he assures.

Little wonder that Madison Art Cinemas “have developed a reputation of having the best coffee, particularly of the Italian variety,” even on a main street that by quick estimate offers at least six more options for coffee on the block. “We don’t prohibit people from bringing food or things inside,” Gorlick assures. Ever confident in the “superiority of the product that we deliver,” he frequently tells such guests, “I’d be happy to give you a cup of our cappuccino for free. You don’t have to pay for it, you don’t even have to like it. I just want to know what you think. Almost each and every time, they throw away what they walked in with.”
Asked whether coffee is the popcorn of the art house, Gorlick disagrees. “Nothing will ever replace popcorn at the movies. It is not necessarily a high money-maker as much as it provides an option and adds to the ambiance, which coming to Madison Art Cinemas is all about.”

Gorlick’s decidedly more corporate peers at Carmike Cinemas (see story in this issue) agree that “popcorn and Coca-Cola is a pretty good combination.” That said, Carmike’s president and chief executive officer David Passman further advises about what is ahead. “We’re going to do a few things in concessions as well, but we are not going to get very exotic. Keeping it simple in small-town America is working very well for us.”

Looking back at the way business was done, he doesn’t believe “that Carmike historically has been a state-of-the-art merchandising organization. We have kept it simple, with very basic pricing for very good quality products. However, the progress in the way in which we package and sell them that has already made over the past few months is something I am actually quite pleased with.” A better presentation and careful pricing are key. “Particularly in a down economy, patrons are looking for deals and increased value for their purchasing dollar. We have been working on—and will continue to do so—rolling out some changes, even in the basic concessions items, that we believe will increase concessions revenue.”

“Watching the crowds” himself on 10 of the 13 “Stimulus Tuesdays” that had passed by interview time, Passman calls the campaign in which a 16-oz. drink and 46-oz. popcorn can be had for $1 each a huge success. “Every week except one, we had a measurable difference—i.e., an increase in attendance—on Stimulus Tuesdays. While we did not have an increase every Monday, Wednesday or Thursday this year. This tells us that patrons are paying the difference there, we are not cannibalizing the other days—those are tracking as they have historically—and that people will come on a Tuesday night where they might otherwise choose to stay home and watch reruns. The number of units they are buying at dramatically reduced concessions prices is evidence enough that this little tactic is working quite very well for us.”

Not resting on any unpopped kernels, Passman also plans to tap into the experience of Carmike’s recently elected chairman. “As we begin to explore how to take Carmike into being a world-class merchandiser, we plan to run our ideas by Roland Smith and benefit from his vast experience” as president and chief executive officer of the Wendy’s/Arby’s Group.

Similarly, AMC Entertainment is counting on the food and beverage expertise that its chief executive officer and president, Gerry Lopez, previously gained at Starbucks and Seattle’s Best Coffee. (A more detailed profile appeared in our May 2009 edition.) “One of the big opportunities for us, and indeed for the exhibition industry, is how to improve the food and beverage offerings inside of our theatres,” he concurs with Carmike’s David Passman. Looking at “the advances in sound and projection technology, particularly of late,” and improvements in theatre themselves by comparison to “the progress at the concession stand,” Lopez wants to bring “food offerings to the next level” as well. While this is certainly “limited by a variety of factors,” and he doesn’t expect double-tall chai lattes any time soon, “you’ll certainly see coffee in AMC theatres before too long.” Speaking further from experience, “coffee consumption has exploded thanks to Starbucks, obviously, and a few others. I was happy to help that explosion over the past five years and, knowing what I know about it, chances are that as we look to further improve the customer experience, coffee will be part of the mix.”

How about exploding the popcorn business while he’s at it? “Pun intended,” Lopez attests, “we’ll be popping the business… Popcorn and a Coke are as quintessential to moviegoing as dating is. We’re not about to take away from that or change it. In fact, some of the ideas that we are exploring, but which are not quite ready yet, are centered on how do we improve popcorn? Popcorn and butter, what else? That ‘what else’ is an intriguing proposition to us. Not within 24 hours, nor during the next 48, but sometime in the future, expect to see us get creative about popcorn.”

Future tense it may be elsewhere, but at AMC Mainstreet in Kansas City, Missouri, the circuit has already installed a so-called “flavor wall” since the beginning of May. Right next to the concession stands and alongside the more traditional condiment counter, moviegoers can spice up their popcorn with seasonings such as sugar and cinnamon, cheddar and kosher salt, in addition to spiking their self-served drinks with shots of vanilla, chocolate, lime and cherry syrups. “It’s a virtual test kitchen,” Lopez explains, “not only of state-of-the-art technology, but also for new guest experiences.” Based on how patrons continue to utilize the wall (“So far guests have been very complimentary of the new concession options”), AMC will determine when and how the concept will be extended.

For Lopez, “the guiding principle…is one of trying to enhance, improve, expand and to otherwise make more pleasant the experience.” To use the coffee house example, he finds “all of the products on offer there are complementary to coffee, somehow associated with coffee and things that are ancillary to the experience of relaxing and enjoying your coffee.” That same pattern will be applicable to AMC, “though not necessarily as manifested in a retail shop in our lobbies. I don’t think we need to do that to make the experience of coming to our theatres that much better. But if, for example, we start offering a greater variety of beverages [beyond the standard selection of soft drinks] and a more complete set of snacks and bigger menu of made-to-order hot foods instead of just popcorn and hot dogs, we have now improved the moviegoing experience.”

Hot foods and cool drinks are also on offer at Mainstreet. Three of its six auditoria have been branded as premium in-theatre dining “Cinema Suites” (read more about AMC’s Fork & Screen in our February 2009 issue), while the original lobby of the 1921 vaudeville palace features The Marquee, a 90-seat Bar & Grill. The expanded menu of the wait-staffed “Seat-Side Service” in the theatres features freshly prepared food items and includes alcoholic beverages with an appropriate 21+ restriction.

Further west and north in Portland, Oregon, Heyward Stewart has found equally good use for a historic movie house. The Academy Theater opened in 1948 and was completely renovated into a triplex by the owner-operator in 2006. While multiple movies per day are $4 and below, highly tasty offerings come from neighboring Flying Pie Pizzeria. Other than freshly served slices, the Academy’s selections also include Nathan’s Hot Dogs, popcorn (of course), organic chocolate, ice cream and lots of different candies. “If you’re wanting a little healthier alternative,” Stewart promises, “we also serve fresh fruit, fresh garden salads, and four flavors of organic juice. We have ten microbrew beers on tap, six selections of wine, several different sodas, iced tea and bottled water.”

Most interesting, perhaps, is how Stewart and his team are tying the adult beverage offerings together with a much sought-after family atmosphere. “Because we want the Academy Theater to be a family-friendly place,” he says, “our weekend matinees are all-ages features, as well as the daily ‘after-school specials’ that we offer as a true neighborhood theatre. Minors under 21 are not ever allowed after eight p.m. and at all other times must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, except in the childcare area.”

Yes, you read correctly: childcare. “At the Academy you can bring the kids with you,” Stewart enthuses. “Babysitting is available at the theatre for children ages six months to eight years young.” At a cost of $7.50 per child and by reservation only, childcare is available Thursday through Sunday for shows between two and seven p.m. As the only movie theatre in town to offer this service, Stewart says it has been received “very well.” While not necessarily an integral part of the Academy’s success, “it helps,” just as the option of enjoying wine, beer and pizza make sub-run programming more attractive to moviegoers.
All we can add is “Cheers” to such concessions innovations, and all those who lead the way.