'Let's All Go to the Lobby...and Have Ourselves a Drink': Movie theatres create lobbies for conversation, not concessions


Back in the 1950s, the popular jingle “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” featured a dancing line of concessions encouraging patrons to “go to the lobby and grab ourselves a treat.” Lobbies have always been a home for concessions, but many theatres are putting more thought into making them appeal to adult audiences, whether it’s through expanded offerings for guests to enjoy in the lobby before the show, or innovative design and décor. For guests, the experience of going to a movie begins and ends in the lobby, and it’s a place theatres can use to make a lasting impression on their patrons.

A recent lubricating addition to many theatre lobbies is alcohol. Cinebarre (www.cinebarre.com), a casual in-theatre dining chain with six locations across the U.S., makes a horseshoe-shaped bar the focal point of their lobbies, a nod to the additional eating and dining options available inside. Adults can grab a drink while they wait for their friends, and then take their beer into the theatre. AMC Theatres (www.amctheatres.com) has been focusing on expanding its MacGuffin’s concept, which has 13 locations to date. The bar/restaurant is a popular place for people to gather before the show. It’s also possible for guests in most locations to order drinks at the counter and bring them into the theatre. Indie theatres are also getting in on the bar concept. During a renovation, Chicago’s historic Logan Theatre (www.thelogantheatre.com) expanded into an adjacent storefront, allowing it to add a bar and lounge area.

With all the additional space, the Logan’s general manager and events director, Shaylah Paul, began brainstorming ways to combine the moviegoing and bar experience. She settled on movie trivia night, which has grown into a popular weekly event filled with regulars. Paul is on a first-name basis with many of the Tuesday evening group, who she ends up seeing all around the neighborhood. The winners receive prizes either from movie studios or beer distributors. Recently, Ommegang Brewery formed a partnership with the theatre, and donated custom-made t-shirts that can be screen-printed with the name of the winning team.

Paul sees trivia night as a way to get a pulse on the movie tastes of Logan’s viewers, as well as a way to keep them in the loop about the Logan’s other events. “I always try to use it as a cross-promotion opportunity. I also think it also gives us a good read about what our audience wants to see–if I do a trivia round all about ’70s Oscar winners versus ’90s rom-coms, there’s a different reaction, and I think that indicates what kind of movie our audience cares about and wants to see.” In the case of the Logan, which draws its audience from an area filled with post-collegiates, students and young families, it’s the ’90s movies, many of them nostalgic favorites, that evoke the most interest.

With the theatre a little more than a year out of its renovation, the Logan team is still coming up with relevant and creative ways to draw audiences. On Monday night, they hold an open mike night in the lounge. For special late-night classic movie screenings, the bar will come up with a special drink promotion. During a screening of the martial-arts movie Enter the Dragon, the choice was “Fists of Fury,” a shot of bourbon and a PBR, which appealed to the young crowd that often turns out for the late, throwback screenings.

The Logan Theatre has hosted a number of film festivals, including the Chicago Underground Festival and Chicago International Movies & Music Festival. Having a bar and lounge area “fosters that festival environment,” Paul says, with people congregating before or after screenings.

Cinebarre has used its lobby for a variety of events. “We’ve had charity auctions, we had a Yelp event recently,” Jeff Martens, Cinebarre’s chief operations officer, relates. Hanging out in the lobby also gives moviegoers a chance to see the staff dressed up like superheroes, like they recently did for Kick-Ass 2, or even showcase a special performer. “For the last Spider-Man movie that came out, we hired an actor who was an acrobat, who was dressed up and climbing on the fixtures,” Martens recalls. “We definitely take advantage of the space.”

Design is an integral part of the lobby area, setting the tone for the entire theatre experience. Having a lobby full of relaxed, sated patrons can make for a better first impression. So often, guests entering a theatre are greeted by blank-eyed hordes of people exiting the auditorium, fidgeting with their keys, checking their phones, or otherwise seeming completely unengaged. A lobby full of people improves on the in-and-out feel of a theatre. In general, most traffic comes before a screening. The busiest time is early evening through around 11 p.m. at the Logan. AMC’s senior VP of food and beverage, George Patterson, estimates about 90% of the transactions happen before the show. For Cinebarre, which has in-theatre dining, roughly 10% of sales come from the lobby area, which Martens nevertheless sees as an important part of the experience.

“You can walk into our lobby, and without looking at a logo, you’ll know you’re in a Cinebarre theatre,” Martens says. “It’s our silver-and-black color scheme, the textured concrete floor, our vintage movie posters,” he amplifies, all of which convey a “cool, laid-back, grown-up feel to going into a movie.” People can order a drink while they wait for their friends, or shoot pool or feed quarters to an arcade game. Positioned next to couches, comfy theatre chairs form seating areas, another cinematic touch. Most theatres have about a dozen taps that emphasize local beers. A new location opening in Issaquah, Washington, will have over 20 taps.

Instead of advertisements for concessions or coming attractions, there are 30-foot-high posters of classic movies. “When I walk into one of our theatres, I see people visiting Cinebarre for the first time, and they’re taking pictures in front of the posters of their favorite movies,” Martens says. The lobby is designed to be a “kind of a shrine to cinema, and it gets them revved up to see the new blockbuster.” The Logan Theatre has ’60s and ’70s-era movie posters they found in the basement during the renovation. AMC theatres vary by location, but reference the movies through touches like famous film quotes etched into the floor and the name MacGuffin’s itself, which was director Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an object that drives the plot forward, like a stolen necklace or secret papers.

The Logan’s lobby is a bit of a cinema time capsule. During the renovation of the Logan, a nickelodeon-era movie palace, period details were found buried in plaster, including marble walls and a stained-glass window. “People who have been coming here for years walk in, and their jaws drop. I still have people come in and gasp and say: I can’t believe it’s the same place,” Paul recounts, noting that at least part of the reaction is due to the contrast. “You would have had to have seen the theatre before,” she says knowingly. The owner, Mark Fishman, bought the theatre in 2011 and operated it for a year before closing it for renovation. What was originally planned as a freshening up turned into a full-scale renovation when he learned an adjacent storefront was available. “I recall him coming into work one day and saying, ‘We’re changing everything, we’re going big,’” Paul remembers. The resulting renovation includes the original lobby details, as well as a new side area for the bar, lounge and concessions that incorporates many of the theatre’s found treasures, like an art-deco relief above the bar.

While bars in lobbies are relatively new, the lobby’s mainstay, the concession stand, is also being reimagined. Food options may vary, but one thing remains the same—there always seems to be a long line as you’re rushing to grab a seat for a packed screening. To solve that problem, AMC introduced Marketplace, a grab-n-go concept. It’s been successful both in encouraging guest spending and reducing their perception of wait times.

“When you put guests in charge of the experience, there’s a tendency for two things to happen,” Patterson explains. “They purchase more, and they also lose track of time in a sense,” which make them less sensitive to waits in line. Since many theatres lose potential customers because they feel they don’t have time to pick up an item before the show, reducing the impression of a mobbed concession stand can make a big difference. With the Marketplace concept, AMC was also able to give their guests more choice. It became easier to stock items that appeal to different audience segments, like yogurt, as well as expand quick-food options like pizza and nachos. It also became a chance to show off Coke Freestyle, which lets people choose from over a hundred soda flavors. Many theatres pair the Marketplace and MacGuffin’s. People can pick up treats at the Marketplace. Once loaded up with popcorn and candy, those of age can swing by the bar to pick up a drink to take into the theatre.

Adding alcohol to food and beverage offerings is a challenge that requires research and well-trained staff. Both emphasize that it’s a decision made not in search of the bottom line, but the best guest experience. Adding alcohol is one way for theatres to appeal to adults who may be wary of the hordes of teens that mob their local theatre. “Having amenities available for adults over 21, beyond popcorn, candy and soft drinks, has been missing for many years,” Paterson says. “When we did research, the over-21 crowd was very excited about the possibility. The decision was driven by consumer research.”

AMC Theatres, a national chain, has been serving alcohol at certain theatres for over a decade, some of them grandfathered in through a variety of acquisitions. Only in the past 36 months has AMC been pursuing its MacGuffin’s concept actively. “Liquor is identical to politics, it’s local,” Patterson says, with decisions about liquor licenses often involving the local mayor, the town council, and requiring a good read of the community itself. For that reason, many theatres have been rightfully concerned about the potential downsides of adding alcohol to the equation. “You’ve got to be committed to doing it the right way,” Patterson advises, making sure that “the resources, time, effort and compliance procedures are as good as they can be.”

Theatres pondering adding alcohol or a lounge area to their lobby should consider their audience. Representatives from all three theatres agree that sales are briskest for adult-oriented features. While parents may grab a drink during a family outing to see the latest animated feature, a family of four will include, max, two people who can even consume alcohol. “It’s content or genre-driven,” Patterson sums up. Paul agrees. “With the exception of trivia night, the bar is driven very much by movie programming. If we were to do all G-rated movies, bar business would drop.”

If adult-oriented features boost a lobby’s sale of alcoholic beverages, it also stands to reason that having a lounge-like lobby can encourage more adults to attend movies, especially those who feel crowded out by rambunctious teenagers at their local theatre. Many of the heaviest moviegoers are 12 to 17-year-olds, according to the MPAA, but their numbers are dropping. Older demographics, in particular the 18-24 segment, have been increasing the frequency of their moviegoing. More mature viewers demand more sophisticated content, but they also want sophisticated viewing experiences to go along with that. Having a lobby that’s “geared more toward stuff adults want to do,” as Martens puts it, is one way to connect with adults who want their moviegoing experience to be a hassle-free, social evening, where they can catch up with friends over a drink in the lobby and then walk in to enjoy a movie.