Latin flavor: Cinepolis seizes market opportunities to bring 'casual' luxury to U.S. cinemas
Continuing our exclusive reporting on wining and dining at the cinema, this month’s dish on “Dinner at the Movies” is inspired by ShowEast’s tropical flair and its many guests expected from Latin America. Film Journal International spoke with Carlos Wellman, managing director of California Cinema Investments, Inc., about how Cinépolis USA is adding a unique flavor to luxurious moviegoing. “We want to offer a different product than what typically is out there,” he declares.
Adapting Cinépolis VIP, as the Mexico-developed concept is known in other countries, involves doing “something that is not traditional,” creating a special experience, and putting “a mark on a different alternative of watching movies.” Not surprisingly, the recipe includes a big dash of experience that its corporate parent gained at those 34 original VIP locations (and counting). Founded under the name of Organización Ramírez in 1971 in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico, Cinépolis is the largest circuit in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, with 305 theatres and 2,805 screens in 11 countries (www.cinepolis.com).
“When Cinépolis started talking about doing something in the U.S., we really believed that California is where most trends are set,” Wellman recalls about positioning the strategy that has already seen four Luxury Cinemas up and running (www.cinepolisusa.com). Having its “final inspection set” within a week from our conversation, Wellman expects the fifth Cinépolis in Rancho Margarita (Irvine) to be open by the time ShowEast rolls around. That’s quite an impressive schedule, as the first location debuted in Del Mar (San Diego, eight screens/550 seats) on July 22, 2011.
Executing the leaseholds “took just under one year from the day we started negotiations,” Wellman elaborates, “and some 180 days for the all new build-out.” La Costa (Carlsbad, six screens/515 seats) followed on Feb. 10 of this year (check out the video by Noahwonderland at http://youtu.be/AiIUIpDcxOs), Laguna Niguel (Ocean Ranch, seven screens/610 seats) on June 1, and Westlake Village (eight screens/620 seats) on Sept. 21. “Having a good team on hand and knowing the California area well” helped this impressively paced deployment, Wellman states. “We really felt that starting in Southern California and heading up the coast would make good sense.”
Creating a casually chic ambiance, “like walking into a trendy hotel,” replete with earthy tones and modern design accents, represents a “regeneration of the way it is done in Mexico,” Wellman attests. “America is a different world, it’s a different culture, it’s a different language.” And Californians are different yet again, the trained architect has observed during 13 years living and working there as a designer, real estate and business developer. “We wanted to transform the VIP model into its California Luxury version, where people can feel very comfortable walking into our lobbies, dressed in jeans or t-shirt, flip-flops and shorts. At the same time that our theatres are very high-end, elegant and comfortable.” High-end casual, perhaps? “Absolutely. Living in California, you could be swimming and surfing on a Saturday afternoon and then you want to go to the movies and shopping in your shorts.” By comparison, in Mexico “people really dress up to go the VIP movie theatre.”
Higher-income area demographics and converting existing theatre locations seem to be an integral part of the strategy as well. “We’ve been looking at many, many different locations,” Wellman concurs on both counts, “and talking with landlords about sites that are either in the process of planning, under construction or that will be built. The retrofits, however, were immediately available and are also drawing good demographics. It takes a lot less time than waiting for someone to first build the shell for you. So we believed that getting these started first would help.”
During the same time that “many of the malls were waiting to see what was going to happen with the economy, there was a gap,” he notes. “It was an excellent opportunity for us to get our foot in the water in the U.S. market, which we believe is still one of the strongest in the world. Moviegoing is an American classic. Actually, it is really an international classic. In good and bad economic times, people everywhere love watching movies.” And having dinner and drinks, of course. “There is a niche for a luxury market in the cinema segment.”
Although Wellman makes “retrofitting an existing building, going in and totally redoing the interiors” sound easy, Cinépolis and the Irvine, Calif.-based team of SMS Architects performed veritable wonders by fitting bars and lounging areas, kitchens, storage and stadium seating into “20-, 30-year old theatres that were pretty much rundown and needed refreshing.” Taking “a dark spot in a very nice area” to new heights required both finesse and fresh thinking, with booth-less projection ultimately facilitating the most dramatic changes.
“We have been looking for more inches inside of each square foot,” Wellman declares. “Basically, we did not carve out anything and haven’t expanded the footprint beyond the original walls, but instead used every inch of the building wherever possible.” Removing the old projection mezzanine and placing the Christie projectors at the back walls “allowed us to extend the auditoriums and to take our stadium seating as far up as possible.” That created valuable space under the back part of the auditorium that could be used for all the necessary support areas.
Throughout the auditorium, food and beverage service is designed to be completed before the film starts. “We encourage people to come in 10 minutes before showtime,” Wellman explains. “With between 15 and 18 minutes of previews, there is enough time for the majority of our guests to order and be served.” With the help of PlexCall buttons (FJI October 2012), and powered leather recliner seats with custom-made tables and trays, service continues during the movie, however. “Most people are very respectful of one another,” Wellman assures. “By pressing the call button, they are pretty quiet and respectful of their surroundings and their neighbors. When people ask me whether it is not disturbing when the waiters come in, I always encourage them, quite frankly, to come check us out and the experience. After they’ve been through watching a movie with all the quiet service and extra amenities, they will agree that it is not such a distraction as they expected.”
Wellman likes to call the waiters “our ninjas.” He reports, “They walk in very quietly, whisper when somebody is talking to them about the menu. Most of the time, our clients pretty much already know what they want and are very quick about ordering. I have personally seen many, many movies in our auditoriums, sitting everywhere and trying to hear what other people say.”
Given the varied and rather tight restrictions across the state, how does Cinépolis handle serving beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages? “Our beautiful and inviting lobbies have a restaurant license,” Wellman replies. “And sitting there with your kids is no different than going to The Cheesecake Factory or other such venues. Like at any restaurant, your children can have a soda or milkshake while you are enjoying a margarita or a glass of wine.” For consumption of alcoholic beverages inside the auditorium, “every jurisdiction is different and every liquor license is different,” he cautions. “We are trying to get restaurant licenses throughout the building and have been successful in some municipalities and not as successful in others.” Wellman emphasizes how Cinépolis is working with city departments proving their model and making clear that “we are really not a nightclub and that Cinépolis is not a place where people go to get drunk.” Again, he draws a comparison to restaurants. “If you go with your family on a Sunday to have lunch, you might have a glass of wine or a beer or a margarita, but you are not really going to have five of them. And that’s really the atmosphere that we want to encourage. We don’t want to encourage the person who is looking for the local bar.”
One initiative that Cinépolis has been successfully implementing is to limit the number of alcoholic beverages that a guest can consume during a movie. “So you can still have your two drinks in a two or three-hour time frame and remain within the legal range to drive, although we do not encourage anyone to do so.” This has proven helpful in the negotiations with local police departments as well. “They understand that we are enforcing the limit as part of our model.”
Wellman declares, “Our Luxury Cinemas concept is here to stay. Beyond growing up the coast to Northern California, we are looking at opportunistic locations throughout the country. We do not need to open 100 locations, we’d rather open one at a time. Our team is analyzing many locations and different options, trying to go into the proper markets,” he assures. “We don’t necessarily want to be very loud. We just want to remain on point by making sure that whatever location we open has the proper demographics and the right neighborhoods. Working with the right landlords and developers is also an important strategic decision for us. Having locations with different landlords will help, over time, to get into some of their other real-estate developments. With our screens, we are currently way under one percent of the market in the U.S., but with the five locations we’ve been able to accomplish a lot already. It’s like starting a wave with a drop of water.”
With time, Wellman has concluded, “more of the newer theatres will be similar to our offering, providing a new type of experience versus the traditional multiplex environment. Today, everyone is watching movies in many other formats and we want our Luxury Cinemas to encourage people to go and watch movies on the big screens with others. Because we do believe it’s less of a movie when you see it alone.”
Wellman believes that this all-important social element is even more special at Cinépolis. “Our theatres are places where you gather with friends… Elsewhere, when the film is over, you walk out of the building and you’re gone. At Cinépolis, we want people to stay, have something to eat and drink. We want them to chat with their family and friends and want them to see other people from the community. We really are a neighborhood cinema experience.”
Technology Tip: Managing F&B
Cinépolis USA has installed Vista’s Food and Beverage module and full Point-of-Sale software, the Auckland, New Zealand-based global provider of cinema solutions reported in its June 2012 newsletter (www.vista.co.nz). Being able to use the full range of functionality “on our DT Research tablets has been critical to our operations,” Javier Ramierez, Cinépolis USA head of operations, noted at the time. “It allows our servers to take customer orders from anywhere in the building, which speeds up the entire order and payment process, and includes all the added features and benefits that Vista has to offer,” such as food modifiers and split checks.
On Friday and Saturday nights alone, up to 20 servers are able to use the tablets all at once, according to Vista’s report on Cinépolis Del Mar, the first Luxury Cinemas to launch. In conjunction with PlexCall, “a bit like calling an air hostess on a flight, customers can order from their cinema seats by pushing a button which signals to the wait staff to attend them.” Thanks to the layout options with table and seat numbers available on the tablets, they can head to exactly where the customer is seated. “This kind of software integration means that staff can focus on giving time-efficient customer service,” Vista concluded, “while also making life easier for themselves when it comes to accurate processing of customer orders.” Overall, this technology “gives staff and the customer far more flexibility while within the cinema environment, leading to a better overall dining and cinema experience.”