Bring on the food! New digital multiplexes create added space for dining


“Suwanee-Movie Tavern at Horizon Village premieres an appealing date night option, livening up the Gwinnett entertainment scene with its clever dining and cinematic pairing.”

Those were the well-chosen welcoming words issued by the Gwinnett Business Journal when Movie Tavern opened its second location in the greater Atlanta, Georgia, area on May 4, 2012 (nine screens, some 1,000 seats). To the same publication, the circuit’s CEO, John Hersker, revealed the potential for as many as six additional locations in the greater Atlanta market.

Boasting a range of movie dining options, the area was already home to the original Movie Tavern Northlake Festival in Tucker (opened May 2008), AMC’s Fork and Screen Buckhead (July 2008 after a 12-year food run as AMC Backlot 6), Cobb CinéBistro Town Brookhaven (2011) and two Studio Movie Grills in Alpharetta (2010) and Duluth (2012). The new and redone movie theatres of 2012 offer something extra, however: They’re all-digital.

While Hersker and the Movie Tavern team have long perfected the “dining and cinematic pairing” to become the largest in-theatre dining operator with 130 all-digital screens at 16 locations in seven of the United States since the first opened at Ridgmar Mall in Fort Worth, Texas in November 2006 (for more circuit and concept history, click here), Suwanee is also emblematic of a few other 2012 trends. Located in a former Publix super market, “Dinner at the Movies” has become the new anchor attraction in the complex. Reclaiming hitherto empty big-box retail in conjunction with mezzanine-less design afforded by digital projection opens up additional opportunities, including corporate events and private parties, with complete audiovisual support, meeting rooms and access to an auditorium and private bar area. Suwanee is also very popular with social media, something that no cinema could do without last year. Within the first ten days, there were 1,400 fans on Facebook, recalls Mark Mulcahy, Movie Tavern’s VP of marketing. At press time, no less than 10,885 “likes” had been expressed.

Upgrade and expansion work at their Hulen Mall Tavern in Fort Worth, Texas, was completed for the midnight premiere of Breaking Dawn Part 2. Originally opened in September 2007, the ten-screen Movie Tavern was “completely remodeled,” adding three screens, including the 200+ seat MT-X “Extreme Digital Experience,” for a new total 1,265 seats, with a larger lobby and an expanded bar area to boot.

“While Metroplex moviegoers may be familiar with the ‘dinner and a movie concept,’” Movie Tavern’s media release noted that these improvements “have redefined the concept and raised the bar in this fast-growing category.”

Also in time for dawn breaking on Nov. 16 in Omaha, Nebraska, Marcus Theatres completed the full transformation of their Midtown Cinema to the CineDine format. At its November 2008 opening, the five-plex still offered a mix of general seating and full dining and alcoholic beverage service in each auditorium. “Because of the overwhelming response to our in-theatre dining concept,” Marcus Theatres president Bruce J. Olson said, the company decided to add 100 additional seats “specifically designed” for dining and watching a movie, “with reclining backs and more than seven feet of spacing between rows for ultra-comfort and enjoyment.” When Marcus announced the appointment of their new director of food and beverage, Olson had already confirmed that “expanding our food and beverage offerings to moviegoers continues to be a primary growth strategy for Marcus Theatres.”

Furthering that goal, in June, CineDine introduced an expanded menu of food items “made-to-order...and delivered to each customer’s seat.” With the new seating arrangements at Midtown, traditional concessions too became a “permanent addition to the CineDine menu [so that] guests will no longer have to visit the concession stand to purchase popcorn, candy and other items.” In January and August, Marcus added two standalone Zaffiro’s Pizzeria & Bar restaurants to existing plexes, including—at 165 seats—the largest of three at the Ridge Cinema in New Berlin, Wisconsin. In each location, “one auditorium at the theatre was eliminated and the space used for the restaurant and supporting infrastructure such as kitchen, prep and storage,” Carlo Petrick, marketing and communications manager at Marcus Theatres, tells FJI. “Space was added on the street side of the auditorium to create more seating, patios and entrances” from both the cinema lobby and separately from the street.

In addition to the Midtown, Zaffiro’s pizza is also available in Brookfield, Wisconsin, where the Marcus Majestic Cinema features three dine-in auditoriums, and at the Hollywood Café and Cinema in Oakdale, Minnesota. Following the early January 2012 debut of Zaffiro’s Pizzeria & Bar in Waite Park, Minnesota (“It has already been more popular than we expected,” Olson noted at the time), Marcus Theatres began renovating “every inch” of their Parkwood Cinema there “into an entertainment destination.” Upon completion in mid-April, Olson touted some of the features, including Zaffiro’s Express service, an area off the lobby that serves select items from the Zaffiro’s menu. Three auditoriums were converted to the “Luxury Suites” concept “featuring oversized leather reclining seats with side tables for food and drink items,” he explained. “The new Luxury auditoriums also include 16 additional inches of legroom between rows [40.6 cm] to create a more comfortable, private screening room experience. The remaining 14 auditoriums have been updated with wide, comfortable memory-foam velour cushioned seats with reclining backs. Guests can adjust the seat-back…to their personal preference for maximum comfort.”

While wait service is not offered, moviegoers are able to take food, beer, wine and cocktails from Zaffiro’s Express inside to enjoy during the movie. “Our adult patrons have found this experience to add their overall enjoyment,” Olson observed, noting that the Luxury Suites have developed “a loyal following.”

Overall enjoyment of the big screen was redefined in Duluth, Minnesota. Marcus took over the 1996 former OMNIMAX from Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Closed since April 2011, the auditorium was converted into an almost 70-foot/21-meter-wide and 4K-powered “UltraScreen,” the 14th in the Marcus Theatres portfolio. With the old glass wall to the existing Marcus 10-plex removed, ticketing was relocated to the UltraScreen lobby. The reclaimed space now features self-service soda stations, which Olson calls “extremely popular with our guests at other Marcus Theatres locations,” and, yes, more food. To him, the addition of the “Take Five” cocktail lounge with tables, chairs and “luxuriously appointed soft leather seating” was “the most unique and exciting new amenity…serving a complete selection of mixed drinks and imported beers, as well as a variety of appetizers, pizza and finger foods.”

Guests at AMC Theatres across the country are enjoying equally tantalizing choices of hot foods like Philly Steak sandwiches, chicken bites, jalapeño peppers and mozzarella sticks, and desserts such as an Oreo Brownie Stack, Big Blitz Bar with Snickers, a Raspberry White Chocolate Cheesecake and scooped ice cream. And that’s not even from the in-theatre dining menu. When AMC introduced its “amazingly popular” MacGuffins bar concept and the “grab-and-go design” of The Marketplace at AMC Highlands Ranch 24 and Westminster Promenade 24 throughout May and June, they told the media, “AMC Theatres’ guests in the Denver area are discovering that popcorn and candy aren’t the only things to be enjoyed during a movie.” (Four-and-a-half months later, the marketing team came up with similarly clever verbiage to hail the installation of risers and “power recliners with footrests” along with additional food and beverage options, of course. “Forget the living room. The most comfortable place to watch a movie in the Arlington, Virginia, area is now AMC Courthouse Plaza 8… About the only thing that hasn’t changed is the price for a ticket.”)

Not to fear, however, the classics “are still available,” the release went on to reassure the residents of Denver, as well as “a few new twists on some old theatre favorites, including a chili-cheese dog, classic Chicago dog and a bacon bleu dog.” While “loaded nachos, loaded waffle fries and gourmet popcorn” may not necessarily fall into the better-for-you category, “AMC Smart MovieSnacks” of “assorted nuts, dried fruit, and granola crunch selections,” are also featured at The Marketplace along with “meat, cheese and cracker combos, and gluten-free items including chocolate brownies.” Drink offerings were expanded as well. Not just by more than 120 possible combinations from the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, but also hot “Seattle’s Best” coffee and espresso and totally cool YogenFruz yogurt and Minute Maid Frozen Smoothies. To all that MacGuffins adds its full bar selection of beer, wine and cocktails for patrons 21 and up. At the two Denver locations, “guests with a photo ID can also order their drink at the bar and bring it into their auditorium to enjoy as they watch their film.”

Additional MacGuffins lounges opened in the Houston and Sugar Land, Texas, area in January (AMC First Colony 24) and in Greater Columbus, Ohio, in March (AMC Lennox Town Center). Over the summer, the latter market also received its first taste of AMC’s Dine-In Theatres combination of “restaurant cuisine and cocktails.” The food and beverage and design teams at AMC converted 13 screens of the AMC Easton Town Center 30 into nine Fork & Screen auditoriums for casual wining and dining (at least 18 years old unless accompanied by a parent or guardian). Four upscale Cinema Suites offer additional premium amenities such as power recliners (21 and older only). All Dine-In includes call buttons and seat-side service.

Last for 2012 (AMC also continued its large-format roll-out with four IMAX theatres in November alone) and in time for the holidays, AMC completed the full Cinema Suite redo at the AMC Marina 6 in Marina Del Rey, Calif. The former Loews/Cineplex Odeon theatre was closed at the end of May, and after the renovations now offers a MacGuffins bar and recliner seat-side service for beer, wine and food. “We’re always looking for more ways to get our guests, who love going to the movies, excited about coming to the theatre,” AMC Theatres’ director of public relations Ryan Noonan summarizes another year of ever-evolving cinemas. “We’re staying on the forefront of innovation through concepts like AMC Dine-In Theatres, which are now available in eight major markets throughout the United States. We’ve also started a great initiative to enhance theatres throughout our circuit. In addition to state-of-the-art sight and sound, AMC guests around the country can now enjoy our MacGuffins bars, Marketplace concession areas and new seats, and the feedback we’ve received has been tremendous.”

In closing the first and culinary part of our ongoing Class of 2012 review, FJI wants to credit its colleagues at the initially quoted Gwinnett Business Journal for pointing out another important fact about the new, expanded and upgraded cinema operations we are celebrating. This past year, as much as in any other one, movie theatres created jobs. Noting that “Movie Tavern employs a larger than traditional restaurant and wait staff working from an extensive kitchen and is able to accommodate meals for its vast audiences,” the report goes on to say that the team “has spent the last 18 months in extensive market research, site selection and construction, and has now hired 85 percent of the planned 200-person workforce.”

Over the next few issues, we will show how the Class of 2012 continues to leave its mark, both on the economies and the entertainment of the communities its cinemas serve.

As with the other entries in our ninth annual survey, this is selective and personal and in no way lays claim to being comprehensive. If you have any 2012 projects for consideration, please send the information to the author.